Wednesday, April 4, 2012


April is Autism Awareness Month. This is a wonderful piece written by Cherith Mangum, Director of Communications at the Alexander Family YMCA. Learn more about the impact that the YMCA has had on one very special little boy.

It’s truly heart-warming to see Karen and John Hammes spend time with their only child, 11-year old Heyward.

Laughter, hugs, high-fives, encouraging words. The small family shares a strong bond that you might experience in your own home—one filled with love, loyalty and just plain fun.

However, a small difference characterizes the Hammes’ relationship. Heyward is a young boy with autism.


“When he was diagnosed at age 2,” Karen recalled. “It was very hard to see him struggle with just the basic skills in life.”

For the last 9 years, Karen and John have worked to find an effective developmental program for Heyward. While Heyward has strong athletic skills, he possesses limited language capabilities.

“Public places and noises cause him to easily go    into sensory overload,” Karen said. “So he needs to have a very specific kind of environment to learn and grow.”

While they kept searching for an ideal location,  Karen and John assembled a team of professionals to help them teach and nurture Heyward. However, it wasn’t until the family found the Y last fall that Heyward’s progress skyrocketed.


“The Y has finally given us a safe, consistent place to help Heyward grow,” Karen said. “And since we’ve been members, Heyward’s learning has gone from 0 to 60 in just a few months!”

Three times a day, like clockwork, Heyward and one of his mentors come trotting into the Y for an hour of fun activities.

You might find them walking the track, playing a game of basketball or exercising in front of the mirrors in the fitness studios.

According to Karen, consistent exercise helps Heyward develop his language skills. Throughout every activity Heyward does around the Y, his mentors are able to connect his physical actions with words. Playing sports? Heyward can identify each of the sports balls by name!

 “We never had one place that we could visit to do all of our activities,” Karen said. “But after the consistency of the Y, Heyward’s expressive language has grown by at least 150%!”


Familiarity. Consistency. The Y has provided Heyward and his family with a stable environment to learn, grow and succeed. But more importantly to Karen, the Y has become a place for Heyward to belong.

“We’ve been blown away by how warm and accepting people are at the Y,” Karen said. “We feel like the staff—and even other members—rally around Heyward to help him succeed.”

“The staff know Heyward’s name. They give him a high-five when he comes in.” Karen continued. “And they’ve been so patient and supportive of any needs we might have.”

A big smile. A friendly high-five. To Karen and her family, the YMCA serves as much more than a workout facility. For Heyward, the Y has become a community of support and a safe haven during a difficult time of growth.

“Every night in Heyward’s prayers, we thank God for the YMCA,” Karen smiled. “We feel like we belong here.”

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