Support Global Autism Warrior — Laura O’Connor Leonard

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one out of every 68 children in the U.S. has autism. However, on a global scale, according to nonprofit organization, Global Autism Project (GAP), here are two beguiling statistics — there are 75 million people in the world with autism, and 85 percent of them live in developing countries. In the U.S., caregivers of loved ones with autism bemoan the lack of services, but can you imagine the horrific challenges parents of an autistic child or adult face in a rural village in Africa, China or Latin America? Well, the GAP is working towards changing that, and local Rockaway resident, Laura O'Connor Leonard, has joined in on their mission, and is heading to China to work with the Nanchang Huicong Children Rehabilitation Training Center.

Leonard, a self-described, “Queens girl,” has more than 25 years under her belt in the special education field as a certified school psychologist, special education teacher and board certified licensed behavioral analyst. Most recently, she worked for Challenge Early Intervention Center as an ABA specialist, and now teaches at a private school, and runs her own behavioral health agency. Leonard is also a fierce ice hockey mom and avid NY Jets fan.

With so much already on her plate, when asked why she chose to volunteer for GAP, Leonard responded, “For much of my career in special education, I worked with diverse communities in Brooklyn. I met so many families with autistic children from all over who expressly came to NYC for help. I remember working with this one family, who were bringing their autistic child back to their home country, so that the devil could be removed from her. Many years ago, I heard that in India, the translation for autism was something like “a child without a brain.” All of my experiences, not only as a professional in the field, but as an individual who desired to make a difference, stayed with me. So a while back, when I heard about GAP, I knew this was an avenue I could affect change on a global level, and this year, I finally stepped up and applied.”

Founded by Molly Ola Pinney in 2003, Brooklyn-based GAP is an international nonprofit organization that partners with local centers around the world to provide services for children with autism. Recruits such as Leonard, otherwise know as SkillCorps volunteers, train teachers and parents, who in turn learn valuable skills needed to help teach children with autism. Pinney started the organization after moving to Ghana with a family who had a child with autism. She was struck by the lack of awareness and services provided there when families started showing up at her house looking for the woman who knew what autism was. GAP now serves ten countries, with the goal of establishing centers in 20 countries by 2020.

Leonard said the volunteers work directly with the teachers and parents, not the children. “What I like about GAP is their emphasis on sustainability. When we go there, we work directly with the teachers and parents, not the kids, and then they in turn start working with the kids. The whole idea is sustainability, so the teachers and parents can continue to put in practice the skills we taught them, so they aren’t relying on us to be there to run the program. However, once we leave, GAP continues support and mentorship through weekly phone calls with the centers,” she said.

Leonard was a little conflicted about her decision to go overseas. “I’m leaving for a month at the end of February. It’s all very daunting as I’ll be away from my family on my birthday. Also, I know so many families here in NYC are also desperate for help. However, though we don’t have the best of services here, at least we have services. There’s so much room for improvement, but who knows, maybe there is something they are doing in China that I could bring back here,” she said.

A significant requirement for GAP volunteers is that they have to fundraise a minimum of $5,000. The money goes towards the program the recruit is volunteering for. Also, recruits have to pay for their own airfare.

As of press time, Leonard has raised $2,825. “Since I got accepted to the program in September, needless to say, it’s been quite a challenge, but I’m confident that we will reach our fundraising goal,” she said.

To support Leonard’s GAP cohort in China, visit: Crowdrise campaign: www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/skillcorps-china-february-2019/lauraleonard9. And for more information about GAP, visit: globalautismproject.org

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