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Autism Votes 100,000 Advocates Strong

July 21, 2011 12 comments

This is a guest post by Shelley Hendrix, the Director of State Based Advocacy at Autism Speaks.

It was four summers ago that Autism Speaks recruited me to help build a network of autism advocates across the United States, an assignment that recalled my earlier days growing up in the South where summertime activities always included gardening. My parents planted their garden in the spring while my grandmother had a large garden year round at her home in Alabama.

Productive gardening takes diligence – Preparing the ground by tilling and fertilizing the soil. Plowing rows. Placing stakes and strings to support tomatoes and string beans. Planting the seeds or seedlings. And putting up scarecrows. The garden must be watered daily, soil nutrition levels maintained and yes, weeds must be pulled.

As kids, my brothers and I would grow so impatient after planting the seeds. Why did it take so long to notice any change? We would run out every morning to see if anything had popped through the soil or if a flower had formed. Did we see any sign of a fruit or vegetable on the plant? No,just dirt.

But magic was happening below the soil’s surface.

Our mother and grandmother would hand us a bag and instruct us to start pulling the weeds before they got out of hand. Sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference between a weed and a seedling. Sometimes we made mistakes. We rolled up our sleeves for this boring, hot chore, but learned that in order to have a vibrant garden, patience was a prerequisite.

Wait. Wait. Wait.    Weed. Weed. Weed.

Somewhere around mid-summer the plants would take off!  Delicious vegetables would start coming in – different plants at different times – but just as our mom and grandmother advised us year after year, our patience and care paid off. Our garden was practically bursting!

As the Director of Grassroots Development for Autism Speaks, I have worked with colleagues and volunteers to carefully prepare, till and fertilize the soil for autism advocacy, to plant seeds of change in communities nationwide, to nourish budding plants of reform and from time to time, roll up my sleeves and pull out weeds. All the while, teaching each new gardener, one at a time, how to get to work on tedious, boring tasks while keeping focused on the dream of a beautiful harvest.

This summer, our effort blossomed – we are now 100,000 gardeners strong.  100,000 advocates affiliated with the autism community planted in every state, in communities large and small. These gardeners are dedicated – determined to make a difference for all people with autism, children and adults alike, on a myriad of issues from health insurance coverage, to securing federal research funding, to educational reform and services.

Over the last three years, our community has harvested a total of 25 states that have enacted autism insurance reform and the gardeners there continue to work hard to maintain their patch through implementation. We have planted seeds and are nurturing seedlings in the remaining states to end autism insurance discrimination. We have secured an additional $125M in research funding through the American Recovery and Restoration Act. And we inserted four very important words – “including behavioral health treatment” – into the Patient Protection and Affordability Care Act to cover applied behavior analysis therapy in the essential benefits package for those eligible for health insurance coverage under this law. We are hard at work to maintain the plants that fund autism research and treatment networks by fighting for the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act.

Sometimes, the plants of our garden are on different rows. These different plants produce different fruit and each plant requires different soil conditions and care. But the fruit of each plant is essential to a balanced diet of change within the autism community. We cannot let any of them wither on the vine.

In the end, I learned life lessons from my mother and grandmother’s teachings.  I may have one big black thumb when it comes to raising a real garden of my own, but I love to plant, grow and nurture people and will help you become a strong, healthy advocate for change.

If you want to learn how to roll up your sleeves and make a difference in a community garden, please join our Autism Votes program at www.autismvotes.org. We provide you with easy steps to participate so you can obtain health insurance coverage, federal funding for autism research,  secure tax deferred savings plans for your child’s adult needs,  services for people with autism and education system improvements. If you are interested in becoming a gardener or district leader in your area, please email us at advocacy@autismspeaks.org .

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