Twenty-one years ago, Richboro’s Frank and Linda Kuepper were given the news that no parent wants but many learn to accept – their newborn son Michael was diagnosed with autism.
Medically, the couple was prepared by doctors on what to expect. But as far as navigating the social aspect of their boy’s disease, that was an entirely different story. Throughout Michael’s early years, according to Frank, the only activity offered locally for kids with severe autism was sports. Since Michael wasn’t the least bit interested in athletics, his parents struggled to help him engage with peers his own age.
“I’d come home and find Linda not happy about whatever situation occurred with Michael that day, be it a neighbor calling and inviting my older son to a birthday party and asking if Michael could be kept at home. He wasn’t welcomed because of his disability,” Frank said.
This was the unfortunate norm for the Kueppers for some time. That is, until Frank had an epiphany at the dinner table one night in 2007. If he and Linda were struggling to assimilate Michael into the community, there had to be other parents fighting the same fight.
“The best way for me to help Michael is to help another 10 kids like him, another 100 kids like him, or another 100,000 kids like him,” Frank said.
Six months after that lightbulb illuminated, the Kueppers officially formed the Autism Cares Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to provide typical social experiences, including prom and movie nights, for young people on the spectrum.
Since its inception, the foundation has hosted more than 200 outings, which were attended at no cost by approximately 5,000 people hailing from Bucks County, Delaware, Lancaster and New Jersey.
Recently, because of their advocacy for those with autism, Frank and Linda were presented the 2019 Mideastern Region Friend of Education Award, given by the Pennsylvania State Education Association Mideastern Region.
The award is distributed each year to an individual or organization whose leadership, acts or support has significantly benefited education, education employees, or students in Bucks and Montgomery counties. Frank and Linda received the award during PSEA’s annual banquet on May 2.
“We were blown away by it. We’re very humble, so to have that tremendous recognition was somewhat overpowering to us,” Frank said.
During his speech at the ceremony, he took time to acknowledge the teachers in attendance for helping their students become more accepting of those with special needs – a positive shift he and Linda have noticed since forming the foundation.
“I made it a point to thank them for their leadership and influence in helping to change the dynamic of our youth,” Frank said. “Our educators lead the way in developing the learnings of acceptance and understanding amongst our students, which are essential characteristics for our leaders of tomorrow.”
For the Kueppers, it’s “mind-boggling” to think about how far the foundation has come in 12 years. It was an idea conceived at the kitchen table, an effort to help Michael experience more of life’s basic pleasures. They just wanted their son to have fun, and never once envisioned such success.
During its first year, Autism Cares hosted six outings, which included bounce houses and sing-a-longs. Frank and Linda thought the events would attract 10 kids at the most. Instead, each garnered more than 70. For the first time, Michael had playmates, more than they ever imagined.
“We were very much overwhelmed by the response. There was no website, there was no network of people. It was really just moms talking to moms, starting at a simple classroom level,” Frank said, reflecting on how the parents quickly formed friendships, no longer forced to feel isolated and alone.
The programming of Autism Cares significantly grew over the years, with the Kueppers currently offering a slew of activities, including prom, glee club, arts and crafts, bowling and physical fitness at various sites in the area.
“We try to focus on things that typical kids get to do that special needs kids may not be able to do due to the confines of the environment or just the overwhelming sensory input,” Frank said.
One such example is a night out at the movies. Frank reminisced on the countless theaters his family was kindly asked to leave because of Michael’s shrieking and hand-flapping. Now, Autism Cares regularly rents an entire theater for sensory-friendly screenings.
“If a child needs to stand up, walk around or shriek, nobody really minds because we’re all sort of in this together,” he said, adding how an outsider might not even know it’s a special needs event because of how well the kids conduct themselves. “They actually develop from that opportunity to practice, and we can see that in many of the activities we run.”
With the exception of the relatively new adult services division, which is waiver-funded by the state and offers habilitation and community services for individuals with special needs, all of Autism Cares’ events are provided at no cost to families. This is made possible through fundraising events, including the annual gala, held on April 27 at Ivyland’s Spring Mill Manor, and the Race for Resources, which typically takes place in November at Tyler State Park.
“We can’t do this on our own. It takes more than a village to do what this organization is doing today,” Frank said, stressing how Autism Cares is always looking for new sponsors and volunteers. “This endeavor has become a privilege for Linda and myself to be able to continue to offer these services to our broader community to improve the lives of these individuals, and to allow them to experience all that life has to offer.” ••
For information on upcoming events, visit autismcaresfoundation.org
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org