A small Glen Ellyn storefront offers an oasis of support for families affected by autism
Lisa Kelly at Kaitlin's Hideout
For many, April signifies the month during which pitchers cast their first curve balls of the season, spring showers become a welcome substitute for snowstorms and the slightest inklings of May flowers begin to sprout. However, for Lombard’s Lisa Kelly and millions of other parents, April bears much greater significance — it is National Autism Awareness Month.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, one in 88 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), “a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.”
Kelly’s 12-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, is among the 29,000 children in Illinois living with an ASD. When Kaitlin was first diagnosed with a severe form of autism, Kelly felt overwhelmed and isolated. “In its early years, it was almost like I felt like I was the only one going through this,” she says. “Parents just don’t have contact with other parents.”
The challenges that accompany raising, caring for and loving a child with autism are many, but they inspired Kelly to be proactive about her daughter’s development and her own means of moral support. She decided “it would be great to have a place where kids can play and parents can socialize, network, support one another, share resources, and share experiences.”
Determined to help other local families and their differently-abled children, Kelly ignored people’s caveats about the lagging economy and used money from her own pocket to open Kaitlin’s Hideout in the Little Shops of Glen Ellyn in 2011. The Hideout is currently designed as a play center for children with ASDs and other special needs.
“The center is small,” explains Kelly. “So we are geared more toward the younger children, as far as activities.” A porch swing, toy cars, a train table, dollhouses, musical instruments, a computer, two televisions, a small game system, books, and puzzles are among the items Kelly selected to entertain young visitors at the Hideout. With their children enjoying the amalgam of toys and activities available, parents are able to sit and chat with each other, offering advice on everything from different diets to area specialists.
For parents of autistic children, scouring the Internet for answers can be exhausting given the sheer volume of information available. Kelly recalls parents lamenting to her that there are 10,000 sources out there on a single topic, and they are unsure which ones are reliable.
“A lot of times parents aren’t told by their doctors and school and therapists about some of the other things that can be done to help their child — diet, nutrition, homeopathy, biomedical intervention,” says Kelly. “There are a lot of other things that can be done to help. There’s not just one thing that’s going to help the child.”
Kaitlin's Hideout allows parents to come together and discuss the various programs, diets, medications, etc. they have tried that have benefitted their children.
In total, Kaitlin’s Hideout provides services to approximately 80 families – an impressive feat considering Kelly currently relies on donations and volunteers to help keep the center running. The average age of the children who visit the Hideout is about eight, though Kelly says some are slightly older and operate on a functioning level that is not quite at their age level, making the Hideout an ideal environment for them as well.
Kelly hopes to grow Kaitlin’s Hideout — both the space it occupies and the number of children and families it serves. One of her goals is to be able to provide more services and support for teens with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that causes difficulties with social interaction. Though she doesn’t currently have the funds to hire tutors and other specialists, a local special education teacher recently volunteered to lead a social skills group twice a month for tweens and teens with Asperger’s.
Kelly opened Kaitlin’s Hideout on her own, but she has since received a helping hand from local entrepreneur Shaun Emerson, who is assisting Kelly with fundraising and expansion efforts. The stars aligned when Emerson, of Glen Ellyn, read an article about Kaitlin’s Hideout shortly after he launched an online fundraising business called Project Boost.
“The first time I met her, I was impressed by her mission and the sacrifice she’s made to try and help others,” says Emerson. Kaitlin’s Hideout became the first project for his new fundraising business, and he has continued to help Kelly ever since, most recently assisting in filing the paperwork necessary for Kaitlin’s Hideout to obtain a 501c3 non-profit status.
“For me, why I stay involved is she’s completely sincere in her desire to help people,” says Emerson, who meets with Kelly on a weekly basis. “She always says, ‘If somebody shared with me what they had been through 11 years ago, my last 11 years would have been totally different.’ And I think that that’s kind of what it’s
all about for her.”
For people interested in assisting Kelly and her efforts at Kaitlin’s Hideout, Emerson says that donations of time and money are certainly very helpful. Since part of Kelly’s mission at the Hideout is to spread awareness of ASDs throughout the community, word of mouth support is another way to help. “The more people talk about her and let others know about what she’s trying to do by spreading the word — that’s the other thing I think that is important to the success of what she’s trying to accomplish,” says Emerson.
Given all that Kelly hopes to do with Kaitlin’s Hideout, she still has a long way to go before the center becomes everything she wants it to be. However, she need only remember the adage displayed on kaitlinshideout.com — a saying that, as the mother of a child with autism, she knows all too well: “Do not give up, the beginning is always the hardest.”
For more information on Kaitlin’s Hideout, call 630 460-0878 or go to www.kaitlinshideout.com.