LKN News Article on After School Program

The following article on the LKN YMCA After School Enrichment Program for Children with Autism (sponsored by the Autism Foundation of the Carolinas) appeared in the Lake Norman News section of the Charlotte Observer in November of 2009. The article is no longer available online so they have shared the following text version with us.
Reporter:   By Lukas Johnson, 
Day:   Wednesday
Date:   11/4/2009
Shortly after Jeni Cooper enrolled her daughter in a new after-school enrichment program for children with autism, she began to notice positive changes.

"I've mainly noticed her self-esteem has improved...," said the Davidson mother. "She's feeling more confident, she makes friends, she comes home happy and I can just see she's feeling good about herself."

Ana, 11, is one of handful of participants involved in the inclusion-based program that started in September at the Lake Norman YMCA in Cornelius.

Open to students in kindergarten-5th grade, the therapeutic, professionally staffed program pairs a child diagnosed as "mild to moderate" on the autism spectrum with a "typical" peer, a child not affected by autism.

There also is one college-trained staff member for every three children with autism in the program. And all program peers receive a day of training, where they learn about autism and how to be role models.

The program is an expansion of the Autism Foundation of the Carolinas' successful pilot program, which is now in its second year at the Siskey branch of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte.

The foundation was created about three years ago by five Charlotte-area families affected by autism. It now offers six different enrichment programs.

The Cornelius program is the second one of its kind in the Charlotte area, and the only one of its kind in the Lake Norman area, said Lori Schleicher, one of five directors/board members of the foundation. (Schleicher's twin children, Rachel and Robert, are 8 years old. Her son was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. Her daughter does not have autism.)

"It's not day care; it's not babysitting," said Schleicher. "It's about socialization and enrichment in a supervised, professionally staffed environment. We hope to eventually have a program like this in at least 90 percent of the branches that are part of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte."

Through a variety of enrichment and socialization activities, as well as homework help, participants and peers learn about patience, tolerance, acceptance and understanding, Schleicher said.

Organizers and parents believe peer interaction is a key aspect of the program.

"The more opportunities we have for our kids to interact with 'typical' peers, the better off they'll be in the long run - and the peers will be better off, too," said Cooper.

Schleicher agrees, adding that the program is about changing lives.

"Ultimately it provides a place where 'special' kids can learn how to make friends and how to be a friend," she said. "The interactions between participants and the friendships made in the program can bring tears to your eyes. And our 'special' kids prosper just as much as our 'typical' kids prosper. They learn to look past the disability."

Right now, the Cornelius program can accommodate up to six children with autism a day.

As word spreads and the need grows, organizers will make plans to expand even more.

"If there is demand, we'll make it happen," Schleicher said.

Lukas Johnson
Find out more:

What: The newly formed inclusion-based after-school enrichment program for children with autism. Volunteer opportunities are available. Enrollment is ongoing.

When: 2-6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, during the school year. Children can participate two, three or four days a week.

Cost: $195 per month for two days a week; $285 per month for three days a week; $375 per month for four days a week. A YMCA membership is not required and scholarships are available.

Where: Lake Norman YMCA, 21300 Davidson St., Cornelius.