Two American Legion Child Welfare Foundation grant recipients for 2021 – the National Autism Association and Boys Town – spoke to attendees of the Legion’s virtual Children & Youth Conference Sept. 18 about how the grants support their efforts.
The National Autism Association (NAA), founded in 2003 by parents of children with autism, received its first CWF grant in 2011 to help produce its Big Red Safety Box program. The program provides tangible tools in a box that may assist in preventing and responding to dangerous wandering-related incidents in the autism community.
The Big Red Safety Box is free to families with autistic children in the United States. And 10 years ago when the NAA put out its first 1,000 Big Red Safety Boxes on its website, they were gone in six hours. Since then, the NAA has received two other CWF grants – including one for $30,000 in 2021 – that has helped deliver more than 60,000 safety boxes at no cost to families across the United States.
“On behalf of those families, their children and all of us here at the National Autism Association, I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping us to keep our kids safe,” said Wendy Fournier, president of the NAA, whose daughter Allie is autistic and non-verbal. “We are giving families tools to help prevent those incidences (of wondering away from safety) from happening.”
Inside the Big Red Safety Box is:
- Two wireless door/window alarms. Fournier said the alarms are “obnoxiously loud” and the sound is a deterrent to children.
- Five adhesive stop signs to place on windows or by doors since children with autism respond to visual objects, Fournier said.
- Emotion cards so children can express how they are feeling.
- Safety alert window stickers for car and home windows to notify first responders that a child with autism is in the car/home and they may be non-verbal and can’t respond to verbal commands.
- 32-page “Be REDy” booklet. “One of the best things in the box,” said Fournier, the booklet provides strategies on how to safeguard your home and recognize signs of escalation or triggers; safety forms that can be given to schools/babysitters/caregivers; safety information that can be shared with first responders to make them aware that there is a child at-risk in their community and how to deal with them if a situation arises; a family wondering emergency plan that the family can prepare ahead of a possible wondering incidence (“If your child goes missing for 30 seconds, and you don’t know where they are, it is the most terrifying thing. So having this plan prepared and being able to go step by step put it into motion is extremely critical when it comes time to locate a missing child,” Fournier said); and a personal emergency profile that families can give to their local police department to have a discussion with them and to have them meet the child. “We want the child to be familiar with the local police and vice versa,” Fournier said.
- Safety alert wristband to show the child has autism if they are non-verbal and cannot communicate with individuals trying to help them.
- Personalized shoe identification tag with the child's emergency contact information.
“Your support has had a great impact on the families that all of us serve at NAA, and it’s providing vital life-saving resources,” Fournier said.
Fournier shared that wondering leads to the leading cause of death in the autism community – drowning, traffic injuries, falls, medical complications to name a few. “Wondering is often a way of communication … I need something, I want something, I don’t want something but I need to get out of here,” she said. “This is a very challenging behavior associated with autism that affects 49 percent of people with an autism diagnosis. For caregivers like myself it is exhausting, you worry around the clock, you cannot never know where your child is.”
Fournier shared an incidence when her daughter got out of the house without her knowing until a neighbor knocked on the front door. And there was Allie with the neighbor, who said she found her trying to get into their pool. Allie, who was seven at the time, pulled a window screen in the sunroom to the side and jumped seven feet down into the backyard. All the doors in the house were locked.
“I’ve heard from moms who will move their couch in front of the front door and sleep on the couch because they are that terrified their child is going to walk out of the house,” Fournier said. “So there is and continues to be an extreme need for these resources in the autism community.”
Boys Town of Boys Town, Neb., was awarded $35,000 for its project, “Boys Town National Hotline.” This project supported 35 weeks of an online campaign encouraging young people to reach out for help.
Boys Town, which was founded in 1917 as an orphanage for boys by Father Edward J. Flanagan, now provides youth-care and in-home family services to families nationwide, educates teachers on how to work with kids that have behavioral and mental health needs, and provides a toll-free hotline number that’s available 24/7 for kids and parents to call and speak with crisis counselors.
The Boys Town National Hotline has over 70 crisis counselors that help youth and parents with a variety of issues such as addiction, suicidal thoughts, bullying, abuse and defiance. The hotline can be reached via phone (800-448-3000), text or chat at Your Life Your Voice.
Ginny Gohr, director of the Boys Town National Hotline, said the CWF grant has helped produce public service announcements, social media ads and materials to provide to schools that promote the hotline. “That has been a huge benefit. That’s how kids hear about us.”
Gohr shared that every year the Boys Town National Hotline prevents about 500 suicides. And that almost 50 percent of contacts they receive are from college age and younger. The top three reasons for the calls Gohr shared are:
No. 1 – Mental health (anxiety about school, teachers, homework, parents or relationships; and depression because of a breakup or friends not liking them).
No. 2 – Suicide-related (thoughts of doing it, concern about a friend, or wanting more information about the topic).
No. 3 – Relationships (dating or parents).
The Boys Town website for Your Life Your Voice gives youth tips and tools to cope with daily life issues they may be dealing with, and provides real-life scenarios from kids across the country who are overcoming family or friend issues and how the crisis counselors responded to it.