WHEELING - Proceeds from this year's Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic Run and Walk will help the Augusta Levy Learning Center carry out its mission of helping children with autism reach their fullest potential and grow up to lead productive lives.
Organizers of the 37th annual distance race, set for May 24-25 on the streets of Wheeling, have chosen to partner with the North Wheeling center, marking the fourth year the Ogden race has donated its proceeds to a local charitable cause that benefits the area's youth. The race in previous years has donated its proceeds and given support to the Miracle Field of the Ohio Valley and the Howard Corcoran Scholarship Fund through the Super Six Committee.
"Over the past three years, the race has been able to support projects that benefit the youth of the Ohio Valley," said Perry Nardo, general manager of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register. "Autism has become a growing concern in our nation, and we believe the support the race can give will be a springboard for the future advancement of their program."
Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic Run and Walk Director R. 'Scat' Scatterday, left, Augusta Levy Learning Center Executive Director Kathy Shapell and Perry Nardo, general manager of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, discuss the annual race's partnership with the North Wheeling center, which provides therapy to children with autism.
Fifteen children ranging in age from 17 months to 6 years old receive therapy at the center, which was the first of its kind in West Virginia when it opened in 2005. When they enter the program, most children are non-verbal, unable to communicate their most basic wants and needs - but Augusta Levy Learning Center Executive Director Kathy Shapell said two-thirds of Augusta Levy graduates are now achieving success in regular classrooms.
"We're extremely grateful for the opportunity for this partnership, and we look forward to participating in the Ogden race activities," Shapell said.
Race Director R. "Scat" Scatterday has personal knowledge of the center's impact. He has a family member that went from being a completely non-communicative child to an inquisitive, active learner after going through the program.
"Consistent with the philosophy of the Ogden Half Marathon Classic, it's an honor and a privilege to partner with this organization that has proven results and improves quality of life on an individual basis," said Scatterday.
Augusta Levy uses the applied behavior analysis approach, which takes relatively simple, measurable behaviors and breaks them down into small steps taught through one-on-one instruction and positive reinforcement. Students receive 35 hours of therapy per week, year-round.
Shapell said the most rewarding part of her job is when the sounds of unbridled celebration that always accompany a child's major breakthrough reach her office.
One of those priceless moments happened just recently with a young boy whose struggle with autism is compounded by fragile health. In January, he and his teacher set a goal for him to be able to walk by Christmas.
"Right before Thanksgiving, he took his first independent step. His parents were told he would never walk," Shapell said. "Someone gave up on this child at 3 or 4 years old. ... It's very powerful. That's what motivates me to do what I do."
The center receives minimal financial support from the government. About one-third of its budget comes from private tuition and insurance payments, and most of the rest comes from private donors and foundations and through internal fundraising efforts.
There is a long waiting list for admission to the center. That's difficult for Shapell to accept because the earlier an autistic child begins receiving intensive, one-on-one therapy, the better his or her chance is for a positive outcome - and it's a constant challenge, she said, to generate enough funds to continue working with those children they have been able to admit.
"You can't start them and then say, 'Oh, I'm sorry, we can't continue with you,'" Shapell said.
A week of therapy for one child costs $750, or about $3,000 per month and $36,000 per year, but that's much less than the $50,000 to $100,000 per year Shapell said it costs to enroll a child in similar programs elsewhere. Shapell does not receive a salary, and center staffers often make their own teaching materials, which not only helps hold costs downs but also allows teachers to individualize lessons.
Awareness of autism and its impact - 1 in 88 children is autistic, it is now estimated - has increased in recent years. But fewer than 2 percent of the more than 3,000 autistic children in West Virginia receive the type of intensive therapy Augusta Levy provides, according to Shapell.
"I think people are under the misconception that it's taken care of ... and that couldn't be further from the truth," she said of autism.
In addition to the human cost, the consequences of not treating early include a heavy financial burden throughout life, often borne by taxpayers. Shapell said an autistic individual who does not receive early intervention will require an average of $3.2 million in lifetime care, or about three times the cost for those who begin receiving therapy in early childhood.