Hearing a child say, “Hello!” or witnessing them hug a sibling are not typically moments worthy of celebration. But these small yet profound actions motivate Susan Sachs and Lisa Lane, co-founders and executive directors of Project HOPE Foundation, to work tirelessly to support families with children on the autism spectrum.
“We have the privilege of being reminded every single day that ordinary moments can be absolutely extraordinary,” says Lane. “We see children enter our doors with no ability to connect with the world and we watch them transform into part of a classroom family. We see desperate, lost parents recover hope for the future.”
This labor of love originally began out of personal need. After doctors diagnosed their sons with autism, the two friends could not find a program in the Upstate that allowed the boys to practice skills they were learning at home in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy.
“THE HOPE ACADEMY PROVIDES UNIQUE AND INCLUSIVE OPPORTUNITIES ACROSS THE AUTISM SPECTRUM, FROM THOSE WHO ARE LEARNING BASIC COMMUNICATION AND SELF-HELP SKILLS TO THOSE WHO ARE PREPARING FOR A DIPLOMA. PROJECT HOPE FOUNDATION HAS BEEN SUCH A VALUABLE ASSE T FOR UPSTATE FAMILIES FOR 20 YEARS, AND I HOPE AND EXPECT THAT IMPACT TO CONTINUE FOR MANY YEARS TO COME.”
—Linda Hannon, government and community relations manager, Duke Energy
In 1997, the two founded Hope Academy, an inclusion-based private school. As part of Project HOPE Foundation’s lifespan of services for the autism community, the school provides supportive classes that develop and celebrate each child’s academic, behavioral, and social successes. Hope Academy is the only school in the Upstate focused on providing a curriculum fully integrated with therapies.
The academy has grown from a 30-student preschool into an organization providing innovative educational opportunities, ranging from regular education inclusion classrooms for preschool through 5th grade, to autism specific classrooms for preschool through high school, to vocational training opportunities for middle school through young adults, along with ABA therapy for children beginning at age one.
“We never saw ourselves operating a school program for more than a few years. Both of us had professional careers to which we intended to return. However, we were inspired by the children and families who needed help and fueled by the continued dearth in necessary services, support, and understanding,” says Sachs.
Hope Academy has been an integral part of Stephanie Martin’s family for more than a decade. Martin’s son began ABA therapy with Hope at age three, an intense and immersive program in which therapists work one-on-one with a child for 25–40 hours per week. Martin’s daughter also attended the academy as a typical learner for her early elementary years, giving the siblings a unique opportunity to be in the classroom together.
“While they each received a challenging and appropriate education that was differentiated to their specific needs, they were also in a full-time compassion immersion environment that celebrated each child’s gifts and abilities,” recalls Martin, who now serves as a board member.
Lane and Sach’s long-term goal is to accept more families into the fold. “Nothing is more heartbreaking than to see a family in need and not be able to provide those life-changing services,” says Sachs. Sustainable funding and permanent space make more availability possible, but nothing stops Lane and Sachs from innovating. Bridging the Gap classrooms prepare students to either transition into mainstream or inclusion-based classrooms, or to transition to the next grade level within the program. Hope Alive Jr. offers skills that help students become independent, productive, happy adults. And a current GED pilot program, where students can focus on one subject at a time, augments academic work with instruction in soft and life skills to enhance independence.
While professional accolades and program expansion symbolize success, nothing compares to the very personal impact Hope Academy makes upon its families. As Stephanie Martin says, “Hope Academy is often the light that brings the family out of darkness.” As another participant states, “It’s an environment where miracles are made, dreams restored, and new dreams created.”
THE EDUCATION SPIRIT AWARD RECOGNIZES INDIVIDUALS WHO HAVE DEDICATED THEIR CAREER TO THE BETTERMENT OF YOUTH AND THE EDUCATION EXPERIENCE FOR THE UPSTATE.