Kelly Autism Program, Sunrise Build Incredible Partnership

Left to right: Jodi McCarty (Sunrise Independent Living Specialist), Matt Aronhalt, Tonya Travis, and Kellie Neal (Sunrise Program Director of Lakes & Rivers Region Foster Care & Independent Living).

The Opportunity . . . “So they began this good work.” (Nehemiah 2:18)

The Kelly Autism Program (KAP), located on the campus of Western Kentucky University (WKU) in Bowling Green, has been committed to discovering ways to help individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) become the very best they can be, since the start of the program in 2002. KAP was looking for a partner that cared for the autistic community and could provide independent living resources and support. Sunrise was an ideal fit.

So when Sunrise and KAP met to consider a partnership that would begin a brand new pilot program, they may have felt like Nehemiah taking on the giant task of rebuilding the walls in Jerusalem. Nehemiah realized that God was calling him to this task, but he also understood that he could not accomplish this enormous project on his own. He needed help. He needed partners committed to working together to accomplish what may have seemed overwhelming, even impossible.

The specific challenge for Sunrise and KAP was to equip a young autistic adult with the tools needed to successfully transition to independent living. KAP had years of experience in working with ASD individuals. Sunrise had a proven transition program in VentureON for those who had aged out of the foster care program. So they agreed to combine resources and take on this tremendous opportunity.

The Beginning of the Pilot Program . . . “For the people worked with all their heart” (Nehemiah 4:6)

In time, Sunrise discovered a young man named Matthew Aronhalt. Matthew, who likes to be called Matt, was 22 years old when the staff of Sunrise met him. Matt had a diagnosis of ASD and was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age seven. He graduated WKU with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts and a Graphics Design concentration. He was working at Blue Cotton Industries in Bowling Green.

Kellie Neal, Sunrise Program Director of Lakes & Rivers Region Foster Care & Independent Living, thought Matt would be the best fit for the pilot program. “There were a few candidates, a couple that we interviewed,” shared Kellie. “Matt was a perfect candidate.”

Matt enrolled in the Next Generation Initiative pilot program in February 2017 for a one-year term. Sunrise quickly moved into action. A safe apartment was secured, funded, and furnished; Matt was given a Walmart gift card monthly to assist with household expenses; and a Sunrise Independent Living Specialist was assigned to meet with Matt weekly. Sunrise was available to Matt around-the-clock.

Matt’s major goal was to obtain a driver’s license. He believed that was the one thing holding him back from complete independence. So Sunrise located a driving school and paid the expense of private driving lessons. “My first drive on the test, I passed!” exclaimed Matt.

Success . . . “The God of heaven will give us success.” (Nehemiah 2:20)

By the end of the program, it was obvious to all that the pilot program was indeed a success. “For Matt to be the first person to do it was really wonderful,” glowed Tonya Travis, Matt’s mom. “It really has shown him that he can do it himself.” Matt reflected, “I know I didn’t take advantage of everything they offered, but of all the stuff I did use, it was all really helpful.” Mom also had advice to share with people interested in this program. “I would tell them to just jump into it because it’s a wonderful program,” Tonya shared. “It really allowed me to be able to let him go, knowing that he’s got a safety net here. They were such wonderful help.”

So what are Matt’s plans now? “I am planning to move out to Oregon sometime in May,” Matt explained. “I guess while I’m there, I’d like to establish myself as an artist a bit more – a designer.”

The Origins of the Kelly Autism Program . . . “I am carrying on a great project . . .” (Nehemiah 6:3)

The realization of individuals like Matt achieving such success is why John Kelly began KAP in 2002 with support of then WKU President, Gary Ransdell, and other key players in the community, including current Director of the Suzanne Vitale Clinical Education Complex (CEC), Mary Lloyd Moore. “We didn’t get caught up in trying to address a cure, not for autism itself,” explained John Kelly. “The cure we’re looking for is how to make every individual the best they can be.”

KAP actually has its origins before 2002. “I have a 31 year-old autistic daughter,” shared John. “She’s non-verbal with a number of other disabilities. She was diagnosed at 18 months.” But it wasn’t until his daughter was getting to middle and high school age that the Kellys realized the assistance she and others were receiving had to change. John explained that not enough emphasis was being put on identifying the wants and needs of these individuals to maximize their opportunities in the community. He knew that his daughter and others with ASD were capable of more.

Eventually, John and his family would have conversations with their daughter’s therapist, who happened to be a professor at WKU, about how to address autism from various angles. These conversations eventually led to the creation of KAP, now located in the CEC at WKU, which houses an early childhood program; a seven to 21 year-old program; a college program; and the newest program called the Next Generation Initiative (the pilot program), which addresses the needs of individuals who have aged out of receiving support and assistance from the state.

A Successful Partnership . . .  “This work had been done with the help of our God” (Nehemiah 6:16)

After John Kelly and Sunrise President Dale Suttles initially met to share their visions of what a partnership between Sunrise and KAP could be, John was confident it would be a success. “I can’t thank Sunrise enough for working with us,” John said. “We could not have done it without the help and support of Sunrise. Making the Next Generation Initiative pilot successful was a result of the competency and capability of Sunrise, along with the people of KAP and CEC. I think it’s a great partnership.” Sunrise agrees and expresses appreciation to KAP for sharing its expertise and for laying the foundation for joint efforts to succeed. Sunrise also acknowledges God’s leadership every step of the way.

A Story Not Yet Completed . . . “And all the people lifted their hands and responded.” (Nehemiah 8:6)

There are more pieces to this story. Dale Suttles seemed well aware of this when he spoke to Matt at the CEC during Matt’s discharge from the pilot program:

“So here’s the thing, Matt. You’re a trailblazer. You’re a pioneer. And what I would tell you is that you’re going to go out and blaze a new trail; but you go find folks and you become that mentor to them, because folks need to be uplifted. You are proof, with help and taking advantage of help, that it can get done. Thank you. You’re an inspiration, man! Go do it!”

The only missing piece is you. How will you support the ministry of Sunrise as it seeks other partners like KAP to affect the lives of young people and families throughout this state? In the words of President Suttles: “You’re an inspiration . . . Go do it!”

Written by David Lyninger, Sunrise Associate Director of Communication.

Jake Pelfrey