CSHA recognizes MAC as Program of the Year

By Brad Boardman, MAC Executive Director

Communication is one of the cornerstones of Morgan Autism Center programming and is key in helping many of our students with behavioral challenges. The transformative power of communication is demonstrated by a quote from a letter of recommendation written to the California Speech-Language-Hearing Association (CSHA). In it, parents Brad and Paola Davenport write: “Although Cameron still cannot speak, he can communicate and he can be heard. Morgan Autism Center gave Cameron his voice. We cannot think of a better qualification than this to win The Program of the Year Award. …”

The letter goes on to read, “We witnessed first-hand, in and out of the classroom, our child transform from a frustrated boy to a calm and happy child who felt heard. Within weeks, Cameron was communicating complete sentences through his device and figuring out how to find words in the device faster than any of the adults working with him.”

On March 28, through a process of nomination, site visits and letters like the Davenports’, CSHA recognized Morgan Autism Center as its Program of the Year at their state convention. This is an extremely prestigious award and MAC is truly proud to be honored by this amazing organization of professionals.

MAC serves many individuals who are nonverbal or have very limited use of verbal language. For these individuals, we are living in an exciting time, as new technology-based communication tools are coming on the market and are constantly evolving toward ease of use. At MAC, we work very hard to create an environment where student communication is expected and valued.

However it is no simple task to implement these communication solutions! Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) and our Alternative Augmentative Communication consultant must stay in tune with new developments and learn to program and use a variety of devices to customize the solution for each individual. SLPs and teachers must work together with staff to make sure communication is happening across the child’s school day, not only during speech. Families must also be trained on the devices and, sometimes, SLPs help families navigate funding through insurance.

While there is no doubt that current technology is amazing, obviously there is so much more to making genuine communicative leaps. In order for any solution to work, there must be a culture that embraces and moves forward with the solution. Parents, staff, teachers, SLPs, friends and others must embrace the possibilities and seize every available communication opportunity. There must be perseverance, passion and — of course — patience. MAC is proud to be a part of our students’ learning environment.

United Wholesale Flowers continues partnership with Morgan Autism Center’s Adult Program

By Flo Fuller
Community Integration Director

As part of our Community Integration Program, the Morgan Autism Center Adult Program has been receiving monthly flower donations from United Wholesale Flowers for more than a year and a half.


We look forward to driving to the San Jose warehouse in our van to pick up the boxes of donated flowers. During that time the clients enjoy walking around to see what new displays might be there, especially the holiday ones.


Manny, one of the staff there, is always happy to help us and get the flowers ready. Even on the busiest days, he greets us with a big smile and spends some time chatting with our group.

Once we come back to MAC, our clients get to work making beautiful bouquets, which they then deliver to different recipients in the community we have partnered with or who have offered their services. The recipients include paramedics, a nursing home, Guadalupe Park employees, Costco Bakery, San Jose State speech clinicians and Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT) and neighbors.


This year Development Associate Lisa Lemke thought it might be nice for a few people from our group to make the flower arrangements for our annual gala celebration and fundraiser Starry Starry Night. Manny was more than willing to meet with us and guide us through which flowers would be most suitable and easy to work with. We were lucky to have Aya Sasaki, an employee in the Adult Program, on our team as she was able to put her creative talent to work and help us pick out a color scheme for the arrangements.


Together with Lemke they created a mock arrangement, which we then used as a model for our group.

The day before our fundraiser, Sasaki organized everything and created different workstations. John, one of our adult clients, was enthusiastic about filling up buckets of water while Angel and Jeff were quick to open boxes and throw away all the trash; Andrew was precise in measuring and placing the marbles/glass beads at the bottom of each vase; Boris was thorough in putting just enough water in the completed vases and putting them in a box for transport; Wanda and Christie created many beautiful arrangements; Tish and Julian helped take out all the dead leaves off the stems; and Scott grabbed flowers out of the buckets to help move things along. It was a very busy and very productive day in the Adult Program and all 35 vases were completed right before our dismissal time!

The arrangements were a big success at our event and looked beautiful on the gold tablecloths. They were sold for $10 each as part of our fundraiser and attendees were quick to grab them at the end of the night.


Thank you United Wholesale Flowers and thank you Manny for giving us the opportunity to further our skills and be a part of the community!

Children’s Discovery Museum holds Play Your Way events for autism community

By Brad Boardman, MAC Executive Director

Morgan Autism Center continues the successful partnership it forged with Children’s Discovery Museum (CDM) in 2012. At that time, museum staff reached out to the center for advice about an event they wanted to host specifically for families affected by autism.

In order to ensure that their event would be successful, CDM assembled a task force made up of parents and community service providers. This group of people met with CDM staff to brainstorm a list of necessary tools, strategies, accommodations and trainings to make for an engaging, supportive and positive learning experience at the museum.

“We learned that children with autism … might avoid a bustling, noisy museum and often require careful preparation before venturing to a crowded public space,” CDM Business Development Manager Donna Butcher said.


Photos courtesy of Children’s Discovery Museum

Initial meetings identified multiple areas to target including providing quiet areas, creating social stories to prepare individuals for a new experience, exhibit tweaks, possible outdoor areas, food issues and — of course — staff training. CDM took the advice of parents and community partners very seriously.

Morgan Autism Center was included in the staff and volunteer training phase of the preparation. It has now held two evening trainings (most recently in January) to discuss autism, some of the possible challenges for visitors and how staff and volunteers can help make museum visits successful.

“The result of the staff training that you (MAC) did was an increased comfort level and better understanding for the autistic community as a whole and a greater level of understanding for the visitors who come through our doors,” Butcher said.

She continued: “This helped our staff not only for the Play Your Way events but the snowball effect from these events has resulted in more families with autism visiting the museum during regular hours, so the staff are better equipped to make their visit a joyful success.”

Since 2012, Children’s Discovery Museum has hosted six Play Your Way events (with a goal of three per year), designed for children with autism — ages 2 through 15 — and their families. The events were made possible by the participation and support of the following community partners: San Andreas Regional Center, HOPE Services, Aspiranet, Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, Pacific Autism Center for Education, Morgan Autism Center and Parents! The next event is scheduled for April 12.

It has truly been exciting for MAC to be a part of these Play Your Way trainings. CDM staff and volunteers are an extremely engaged and inquisitive group of people — just what you might expect from people involved in a museum! Their obvious desire to serve the entire community, in the end, is what makes these events so successful.


Want to attend the next Play Your Way event? Purchase your ticket TODAY!

Starry Starry Night a resounding success

Seventh annual fundraiser surpasses last year’s total

By Shannon Carr, Communications and Social Media Specialist

Morgan Autism Center’s seventh annual Starry Starry Night Gala Celebration and Fundraiser Saturday evening was a huge success at Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club in Menlo Park.

“The dedication of the staff at Morgan Autism Center and the inspiring leadership of the event chair and her extraordinary committee lent a special glow to this year’s Starry Starry Night,” MAC Board Chairwomen Nena Montgomery said. “This event always touches my heart and everyone I bring to the event feels the same way. My family feels blessed to be part of such an amazing organization.”


Executive Director Brad Boardman and Board Chairwoman Nena Montgomery thank Event Chair Vilma Pallette and Parent co-chairs Moriah Bettencourt and Paola Luna Davenport.
Photo by Jason Foy

Approximately 320 family, friends and community supporters turned out to raise their auction paddles in celebration of our everyday efforts and star artists, netting nearly $30,000 more than last year, according to preliminary reports.

“We are so thankful to those who understand the dire need for these kinds of services and who support MAC,” Executive Director Brad Boardman said following the event.

Bernard Joseph Smith, a musician and vocalist with autism, warmly welcomed attendees by playing piano and singing tunes spanning pop artists like Phillip Phillips and Mumford & Sons.

The evening kicked off with a reception and Silent Auction composed of many sought-after packages and 14 one-of-a-kind art pieces created by our students and adult clients. The night continued with dinner and a program, led by emcee John Rothman and a Live Auction led by Auctioneer Craig Silverman.

Morgan Autism Center honored Santa Cruz-based Ride a Wave and founders Danny and Heather Cortazzo with this year’s Outstanding Leadership Award for the nonprofit organization’s services providing tandem surfing, kayaking and boogie boarding activities to people with disabilities since 1998. Morgan Autism Center has been part of Ride a Wave events since 2007.


Executive Director Brad Boardman honors Ride a Wave founders Danny and Heather Cortazzo.
Photo by Jason Foy

The message of Morgan Autism Center was shared throughout the program, with heartwarming accounts from different perspectives; first by Sibling Speaker Alyssa Aiuto — who is also an instructional aide at MAC — and later followed by a Parent Presentation from Moriah Bettencourt and Paola Luna Davenport.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/87745151″>2014-Starry Starry Night</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user2190572″>Lisa Damrosch</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Boardman reiterated the special attributes of programs and needs that are critical for enriching the lives of our students and clients with a personalized comic; a graphic example of the value technology can lend.

The poignant stories all undoubtedly led to the overwhelming support felt during the culminating event Fund Our Needs. At that point Silverman asked attendees to hold up their bid number at the appropriate financial level (kicking off at the $5,000 increment) with funds to support adult programming, technology and transportation needs. The $50,000 goal was exceeded, nearly doubling last year’s part of the evening alone.

“Celebrating great community partners like Ride a Wave and hearing the very touching personal stories of individuals whose lives have been changed by their affiliation with MAC really illustrated how meaningful high quality programming is to our community,” Boardman said.

Behind every successful event is a strong team. This year Event Chair Vilma Pallette led the group which included Honorary Chair Helen Owen; Parent Co-Chairs Bettencourt and Luna Davenport; Live Auction Chair Daren Tuchman and members Jill Escher and Jan Kasahara; and committee members Anna Anderson, Tom Caulfield, Elisabeth Einaudi, Nicole Ferguson, Theresa Oller, Agape Wagner and Bess Zientek.


Student artist Mishal Sadiq waves to the audience while people start bidding on Live Auction piece “Peacock.”
Photo by Jason Foy

“Working in partnership with the dedicated staff and the equally dedicated MAC mothers who comprised the Starry Starry Night Committee was an indelible privilege,” Chairwoman Pallette said. “I learned a great deal about compassion, flexibility and focus from them, along with gaining an even deeper appreciation of the unique service that the Morgan Autism Center offers.”

Morgan Autism Center would also like to thank generous sponsors of this year’s Starry Starry Night, without whom the evening would not be possible. Van Gogh Sponsors ($5,000 each) were Nena Montgomery and Michael Edson, Vilma Pallette, and The Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Foundation; Renoir Sponsors ($2,500) were Heritage Bank, Intel Corporation and Wells Fargo Bank; Degas Sponsors ($1,500) were Focus Business Bank, Mr. & Mrs. Mitch Stermer, Steve and Bess Zientek/Frank Harrington and Jo Zientek; and Cezanne Sponsors ($1,000) were Tom and Kelly Caulfield, Peninsula Associates, Alan and Ute Ren, Terrence and Terry O’Day, and Ali Siddiqui and Naila Qureshi.

We would also like to extend a heartwarming thank you to the countless staff, parents and community volunteers — we could not have done it without them!


View more photos online at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152221378470750.1073741854.53726720749&type=1&l=54ea06a12b

Ride a Wave gives MAC kids a life-changing day at the beach

by Shannon Carr, Communications and Social Media Specialist

The ebb and flow of fireman, paramedic, former champion tandem surfer and lifeguard Danny Cortazzo’s life has swelled into something much larger than himself. Since being hit by a car and having a near-death experience in 1990, Cortazzo has helped thousands of children get in the water and have a life-changing day at the beach.

“That down time made me truly realize how lucky I am to be able to go to the beach and enjoy the ocean,” Cortazzo recalls. “It also made me open my eyes to the fact that many people might not have the opportunity to share in that experience.”Image

MAC student Jacob enjoys catching a wave.



So he decided to share this feeling with others by founding Malibu Board Riders in 1992, while living in Southern California, to help children dealing with cancer at Ronald McDonald’s Camp Good Times get in the water to surf and boogie board.

After being hired by the City of Santa Clara Fire Department in 1995, he moved back to Santa Cruz and continued sharing the healing powers of the ocean with others.

In 1998 he founded Ride a Wave, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit organization that provides tandem surfing, kayaking and boogie boarding activities to people with disabilities.

“It is always an amazing sight to see our students laugh, play and enjoy the ocean in such a supportive environment,” Brad Boardman, executive director of Morgan Autism Center, says. The center has been part of the Ride a Wave events since 2007.


MAC student Maria Oller receives hi-fives during a Ride a Wave event.

He continues: “Even more amazing is to turn your attention toward the parents watching their kids from the beach: wide smiles, laughter and a sense of absolute joy that their kids have an opportunity to enjoy such an experience.”

Ride a Wave is a program under the auspices of the Santa Clara Firefighters Foundation, a California 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

“The Santa Clara City Fire Department has a long history of community involvement and it is one of the reasons I chose to work for this department,” Cortazzo explains.

So he ran the idea for Ride a Wave past one of his friends, and they both pitched it to the firefighters union.

“Everyone pulled through and was supportive from the onset,” he continued, saying support came in from the union in addition to some of his friends, surfing sponsors and more.

Their first event was in 1998 — held in conjunction with Santa Clara Parks and Recreation Department and City of Santa Cruz Lifeguard Service — and served 25 participants by 30 volunteers.


MAC student Maria Oller catches a wave.

“The following year we sponsored three events and we now host nine events each summer and send a crew to Malibu to assist the Board Riders with Day on the Beach,” he says of how it has and continues to grow. “It is amazing how our program has evolved yet our mission is the same. We have between 350 to 400 volunteers who participate during our season.”

Morgan Autism Center chose Ride a Wave for this year’s Outstanding Leadership Award for a number of reasons.

“Ride a Wave is an organization that truly understands how to share the gift of the ocean in a safe, supportive and truly fun way,” he explains. “For many, this day at the beach is the event of the year. To have the opportunity to experience the ocean as a partner in playful activity is truly a gift.”

Upon finding out about the honor, Cortazzo replied: “Anytime our program is recognized for its achievements it’s an honor. To receive an award from an organization such as the Morgan Autism Center that is a leader in special programs is really amazing.”

Cortazzo says his passion for the organization only continues to grow.

“There are so many emotions that are gratifying about Ride a Wave,” Cortazzo says. “First and foremost is seeing the children having fun and to see their excitement. It is also amazing to see the community come together to provide this opportunity.”


Shannon Carr is Communications and Social Media Specialist with Morgan Autism Center. She formerly worked for more than six years at different Bay Area News Group publications.

Instructional aide Alyssa Aiuto shares experiences growing up with MAC student Giancarlo

Will share story at upcoming Starry Starry Night event

by Shannon Carr, Communications and Social Media Specialist

Giancarlo Aiuto is more than a younger brother to 22-year-old sister, Alyssa. He is her muse.

ImageAfter graduating in May from University of San Francisco with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology, Alyssa was inspired to deviate from her plan to find a career in counseling. Her thoughts leapt to San Jose-based Morgan Autism Center, where her brother marked his 11th year as a student in November.

“Giancarlo has always been a really easygoing student,” says Executive Director Brad Boardman, previously Giancarlo’s teacher. “He enjoys being with people and is enthusiastic about being a part of all school activities.”

Alyssa admits that through the years she has seen changes in her brother, much of which she credits to the nonpublic school.

“Since he’s been here, he’s learned so much; everything,” Alyssa says. “From tying his shoes to riding a bike. He’s reading, he’s talking more.”

And, above all else, he has found acceptance.

“The environment here — you can’t fake the love that the teachers have for the kids,” she says. “And, you know, for the first time it was like, ‘Wow, everyone that works here sees how special my brother is just like I do and they love him just like I do. And they want him to do well and learn.’”

Wanting to give back to the organization that has done so much for her family, Alyssa called Boardman to inquire about any employment opportunities that were available. He called her in for an interview, at which point Alyssa had a tour of the site.

“I knew it would be different than just being with my brother because there’s so many different kids here with different needs,” she said. “…I went to a few different classrooms, and I loved it.”

In particular, she found a strong connection to Room 17, led by teacher Kendra Comstock.

“When I first walked in, (student) Jack just came right up to me and clapped and grabbed my hands, and had a big smile on his face,” Alyssa explained of what sealed her desire to be placed there. “…That’s the room that they put me in.”

Since June, the Union City residents — born a mere 363 days apart — have been going to and from the school every day, together.

“At first it was just kind of difficult getting into the groove of everything,” Alyssa says. “There are kids with behavior (challenges) that I’ve never dealt with before.”

She continues: “But then after working here I was like, ‘Wow. This is where I’m supposed to be.’ Seeing the kids progress and also such a supportive staff — just working as a team, always willing to step in and help — it’s been really great and I just know for sure this is what I want to do.”

It has also been nice, she says, being able to spend extra time with her brother – particularly after being away at college.

Image“Whenever it’s payday, I have him in the car on the way home, so we stop and get a sweet tea or get an iced coffee,” Alyssa says about just one of their many routines.

While her brother may live with autism, Alyssa emphasizes that he is not defined by the developmental disability he was diagnosed with at 2 years old.

“Don’t just think of autism as a label and that every person with autism feels the same way, acts the same way,” she says. “That just like everyone else they’re extremely unique individuals.”

He is, however, made up by a myriad of interests that range from listening to a variety of music, watching Disney movies, “supervising” his mom while she cooks and completing jigsaw puzzles.

“He can pick up a piece and know exactly where it belongs, and our kitchen table is usually covered in the pieces of the puzzle that G is working on,” Alyssa says. “He goes around the house and gives us all high fives as he makes progress, and has a framed 5,000-piece puzzle in his room that he completed a while back.”

Above all else, though, Alyssa says Giancarlo is about all things water.

“He loves to go swimming, go to the beach, even play in the sink,” she says. “Our grandma passed away a long time ago but she used to call him ‘aqua boy.’”

While she has many fond memories of having a brother with autism, Alyssa admits their childhood together wasn’t always so easy.

“I had some friends, these boys that were in the neighborhood, and I remember they came over and just started making fun of my brother,” she recalls. “So I said, ‘OK you guys. Get out.’ And I closed the door, and closed the windows. That’s kind of how I would choose my friends and who I wanted to hang out with, by the way they treated my brother. He comes first.”

Rather than let it get her down though, Alyssa admits she instead developed invaluable skills she continues utilizing as an instructional aide at Morgan Autism Center on a daily basis.

“I think most of all the patience,” Alyssa says. “When he was younger, he did get into some stuff, mess with my belongings or break some of my stuff. … I just had to learn it’s not that big of a deal. They’re just things.”

ImageAnother big value she took away is compassion “to work with this population and that despite some behaviors or difficulties that they are really special people and just sometimes need help to grow.”

Alyssa is thankful to continue raising awareness, which has been important to her from a young age.

“I always, when I was little, would say, ‘When I grow up I’m going to cure autism,’” Aiuto says. “I can’t do that, but I can work with this population. The way that teachers have helped my brother; helped him just grow and flourish and learn so many skills that help him have a better life, I wanted to do that too. It’s been awesome.”


Shannon Carr is Communications and Social Media Specialist with Morgan Autism Center. She formerly worked for more than six years at different Bay Area News Group publications.

As autistic kids reach adulthood, local leaders help chart course for an uncertain future

Imageby Jill Escher

When Scott Badesch — president of the Autism Society of America — visited San Jose last week, he addressed a crowd of concerned autism parents gathered at the Morgan Autism Center in the Rose Garden area.

The first wave of children of the autism epidemic has started to age out of the school system, Badesch said, and is entering an antiquated and fragmented adult housing and care system wholly unprepared to handle the vast numbers of affected individuals and their often complex and intensive needs.

Autism service providers here in the Bay Area are already feeling the heat.

Morgan Autism Center’s adult program, housed in two former classrooms at the Benjamin Cory Elementary School site, is “bursting at the seams,” says Executive Director Brad Boardman. Demand for adult autism program options is soaring, he added, but scant are the facilities or staff to serve them. Autism adult programs across the Bay Area are beset by waiting lists, short-staffed, and running out of space.

In the 1980s, when California made the decision to begin shuttering Developmental Centers –- including the Agnews Developmental Center in Santa Clara –- that had housed the developmentally disabled when institutionalization was the societal norm, no one could possibly have foreseen the coming explosion in cases of autism.

From the Department of Developmental Services, which has kept careful records regarding residents with developmental disabilities, we see that rates of substantially disabling autism alone, not including milder forms of the disorder, have soared more than 2,000 percent since the 1980s. That means that for every one Californian with substantial autism in 1985 (when autism by any name was largely unheard of), we have more than 20 today.

Compounding the problem, in California the adult autism services system is funded at one-quarter the rate of the educational system, but when a 21 year-old autistic person turns 22, and is no longer eligible for special education, the needs for space and staffing hardly diminish by 75 percent.

“Of course, no one wants to return to institutionalizing dependent adults,” Boardman says, “but we must provide as an alternative a menu of strong community-based alternatives, and we’re systematically failing to do that.”

Autism is a developmental disability that affects the neurodevelopmental functioning of the individual, resulting in significant impairments in language, social interaction and behaviors. It is considered a spectrum disorder with the nature and degree of disability varying from person to person. Some, like my children, are nonverbal and will require lifelong 24/7 care and supervision. Others have little cognitive impairment but substantial challenges with social functioning and abstract thought, for example.

In cooperation with organizations around the Bay Area, the Autism Society of the San Francisco Bay Area is leading a collaborative effort to provide tangible, viable answers to the adult autism crisis. We need innovative forms of autism-friendly supported housing in every community in the Bay Area, requiring rental vouchers for those with exceptional needs, reinvention of group homes to include autism-friendly amenities, and new all-abilities housing complexes that deliberately include people substantially challenged by autism as valued participants in our community.

But housing is just a start. We will need dozens of new day programs where adults with autism can find community, meaningful work and daily activities. But in the Bay Area, this requires real estate and staff, both of which are financially out of reach for even the best intended and most efficient of programs.

With autism rates now reaching 1 in 88, or according to the latest Center for Disease Control statistics, 1 in 50 in school-age children, autism is affecting us all. We invite you to learn more about our Autism and Developmental Disabilities: Adult Housing and Lifespan Care Solutions Initiative at www.sfautismsociety.org. For more information about Morgan Autism Center, visit www.morgancenter.org.
Jill Escher, a San Jose resident, is president of the Autism Society of the San Francisco Bay Area, the mother of two children with autism, and a noted autism causation science and programs philanthropist. She can be reached at jill.escher@gmail.com.



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