Written by Estelle Slootmaker
“AAoM truly services the entire state of Michigan. Having some people in Grand Rapids will help better connect families in the area to critical services as well as employment opportunities.”
Since opening its doors in Southfield in 2009, the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) has worked with thousands of Michigan families and individuals living with autism all over the state. A trusted partner and source of information, AAoM’s experienced advocates and navigators have shared resources for basic care, helped folks navigate civil and legal rights, and ensured that children received full access to education and adults found opportunities for employment. Through those years of progress, AAoM has continued to expand its reach, virtually through web-based trainings and resources and face-to-face at events, conferences, and gala fundraisers. “We’ve been in existence for over 13 years now. As a statewide organization, it was time for us to have another physical presence in the state,” says Marc Berke, chief development officer for AAoM. “Grand Rapids, being Michigan’s second largest metropolitan area, was an easy fit for us when we were taking a look at where we wanted to open up a second office.”
Located within the Special Olympics Michigan Unified Sports & Inclusion Center at 160 68th Street SW in Byron Township, AAoM’s new Grand Rapids-area location, about 10 miles south of Grand Rapids proper, is convenient to people living in Kent County as well as those residing throughout West and Southwest Michigan.
“Grand Rapids is such an amazing place. You really need to be a part of a community to fully embed yourself,” Berke says. “We want to make sure that we’re servicing families and actually being present there. ‘Hanging a shingle,’ so to speak, makes a difference.”
“A perfect space for AAoM’s Grand Rapids presence”
Berke believes the Special Olympics complex is a perfect space for AAoM’s Grand Rapids presence. The complex is home to several other nonprofits, including Autism Support of Kent County.
“Without question, we are always looking to collaborate where there’s synergy. We’re excited to join that community. It’s a perfect location for us,” Berke says. “One of the wonderful things about being at the Special Olympics complex is that they have incredible meeting spaces. We will be able to host employment trainings and job fairs right where our offices are located. That’s another huge advantage.” AAoM currently serves more than 2,000 Grand Rapids area residents. Three of AAoM’s existing staff members live in the Grand Rapids area and, even though they provide virtual services for the most part, they welcome the opportunity to have an office close to home.
“As a statewide organization, with our main offices in Southeast Michigan, we are very excited to grow our physical presence in West Michigan,” says Dr. Colleen Allen, AAoM president and CEO. “We have served hundreds of families in the Grand Rapids area, trained first responders, partnered with autism service organizations and advocacy groups on a number of strategic initiatives, but with our growing staff, some of whom live in Grand Rapids, we knew it was time to lay down roots.”
One of the three Grand Rapids staff members, Julia McCarter works as an AAoM MI-Navigator. MI-Navigators provide free professional consultation on clinical, educational, insurance, vocational, public safety, policy, and legal issues. “Our MI-Navigator program is the centerpiece of our organization,” Berke says. “To date, MI-Navigators have consulted with more than 12,000 families directly and thousands more through AAoM community education and training initiatives.”
Programming opportunities expanded
Joining McCarter are Laurel Buck and Courtney Wilder. Both work for AA0M’s Upbound Staffing employment program. Upbound Staffing advocates for people living with autism and other disabilities in the world of work, connects them with employment opportunities, and recruits and trains employers to welcome people with disabilities into their workforce. “Upbound Staffing is a full-fledged LLC staffing company that places individuals with autism into good paying jobs,” Berke says. “It also provides employers with preemptive training on inclusive recruitment, culture audits, and a database of job seekers with autism that they can hire from.” AAoM will leverage the new office space to increase access to its other programming. For example, when COVID vaccines were rolled out for children,
AAoM’s MI-Navigator program made a point of sharing science-based COVID-19 vaccine facts as well as information on how to prepare children and adults with ASD for a vaccination. In addition, AAoM worked with agencies and therapy centers across Michigan to establish vaccine clinics that supported individuals with autism. Getting vaccinations can be difficult for people with autism, particularly children, given their behavioral, communication, and sensory challenges.
“AAoM truly services the entire state of Michigan,” Berke says. “Having some people in Grand Rapids will help better connect families in the area to critical services as well as employment opportunities.” Berke hopes the new offices will be ready this July with on-site events happening there soon after. In November 2023, AAoM will hold its Navigating Autism conference at Grand Valley State University L.V. Eberhard Center in downtown Grand Rapids. This will be the second year that AAoM has done the conference on both sides of the state.
“We already have an extensive database of programs and services across the state of Michigan, but having people on the ground makes a big difference,” Berke concludes. “We want to provide families with access to services wherever they are in their lifespan, whether that is diagnosis of autism, finding good ABA therapies, finding sensory-friendly doctors, educational needs, and ultimately employment and independent living.”
Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer and editor focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children’s books. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com.