April is Autism Awareness month and Tomorrow’s Voices is celebrating 10 years of bringing successful therapy, support and awareness about autism to the Bermuda community. Throughout the month of April, Today In Bermuda will publish a series of stories about the charity.
Sometimes our path in life changes more than we could ever imagine.
For Thea Furbert and Tricia Kristoff, their paths led them to bring Bermuda one of the only Centres dedicated to working with children and teens with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Tomorrow’s Voices – Bermuda Autism Early Intervention Centre came about after Ms Furbert and Ms Kristoff met when their sons were diagnosed with autism.
The duo, along with Debbie Larcher, originally started BASE (Bermuda Autism Support & Education) in 1999, but they always knew they wanted to be able to offer more options to help children directly.
After the team met with Dr Vince Carbone and studied the techniques of evidence-based behavior analysis, which was the treatment provided through the Carbone Clinic in New York, they knew they had found the key to helping Bermudians with autism.
With the help of Ms Furbert’s sister, Erica Smith, who came onboard with a business background, Tomorrow’s Voices came to fruition in 2007.
“We always knew from the beginning that we were going to be bigger but we didn’t really know it would turn out to be this big,” said Ms Furbert, who currently sits as the organizations chairwoman. “We started out with five staff and only four clients. Now we’ve grown to including consulting, social skills and a summer programme and a waiting list of clients. We started small to see if we could facilitate these children and see how it would go. And we saw that we were making a difference in their lives.”
She added: “By year five we were getting calls every day from new parents or a teacher that was looking for help for a student in their class and we knew that we needed to continue to grow.”
While the last 10 years have been a bumpy road, the team has fought hard to provide a place that has made huge strides for children – and their parents – who have been diagnosed with autism or other developmental disabilities.
And all of those bumps have been made all to real for Ms Kristoff and Ms Furbert, who have lived the autism diagnoses first-hand.
In the beginning, when the idea of an autism centre was only a thought in their minds, they were struggling to find help for their children.
“We went from just being a normal family doing things to a fully functional autism business as we had to hire workers to help teach the boys as at that time there really was nothing in Bermuda for us to turn to for help,” explained Ms Kristoff. “I was no longer mom, I was a therapist, a manager, a data input person, a scheduler. Everything we did revolved around verbal behaviour and autism, and doing whatever we could to make sure that the boys got the best treatment they could so that they could learn, with the goal always being for them to become productive adults.”
Fast forward to 2017 and the Centre is now thriving with an internationally recognized program and staff, who are either board certified or working towards board certification in applied behavioral analysis.
The results have been real for many parents that have been through therapy at Tomorrow’s Voices but is even more keenly felt by Ms Furbert, whose son Ciré is 19 and has grown up going through therapy at Tomorrow’s Voices.
“From a personal perspective I’ve seen my child go from not being aware of his environment to being so busy looking at his world and the intricate details of his world that I’m no longer as important,” reflected Ms Furbert.
“What was important to us and is still important to us is that what we are teaching is research based so that we are not wasting our parents and clients’ time. We have children that come in here who have no communication and after six months here they are making progress and the parents are so happy to see those changes.
It’s very emotionally moving for me.”
While Ms Kristoff was only in Bermuda for Tomorrow’s Voices first year as an early intervention centre before she moved back to Canada, the organization and the fight to provide proper care and therapy for her own children and those with a diagnosis of autism in Bermuda, are still close to her heart.
“I stayed involved with Tomorrow’s Voices from afar, and mostly watched the amazing work that Thea and Erica did to keep the Centre going and thriving. I watched amazing people come and work for the Centre and really make a change in the lives of a lot of Bermuda’s children with autism. The work these women did was continuous, tireless, and when they couldn’t do any more, they pushed harder and made it happen. I am so proud to be a part of such an amazing group who are really making a difference. My part is smaller than if I was on island, but the journey was and is a very fulfilling one,” she said.
Last year the Centre was recognized internationally as Best Autism Treatment & Prevention Centre - Caribbean by UK-based Global & Pharma Magazine (GHP) as part of their 2017 Social Care Awards. As well, two staff members, Naomi Taylor and Frances Parkes, had their papers accepted by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) and invitations to speak at this year’s annual convention in Denver, Colorado.
“We’ve had so many successes,” said Ms Furbert. “Most recently with international recognition for some of our staff who have been selected to present “posters” for the research they have done with our clients.
“We also often get calls from international organizations who have said they are coming to Bermuda and would like to visit and observe the work that we do with our clients. What our staff are doing here will benefit our children but also other children around the world.”
Looking to the future the hope is that the Centre will continue to reach the goal of having board certified behavioral therapists, as well as keep the momentum of training Bermudians to work in the field.
“Staffing has been a challenge,” said Ms Kristoff. “Luckily, as we had hoped, the Centre has sparked interest in many Bermudians and we were able to hire and train Bermudians, and have had a few go further and become certified.”
Financially there is always need as most recommendations for verbal behavior and applied behavior analysis is around 30 to 40 hours per week of treatment, which can be expensive. Luckily with the support of many businesses the organization has been able to provide services to as many people as possible.
Today the Centre has approximately 16 clients, but the hope is for the services to expand to reach more people in the community.
“It’s been a lot of worry, tears, and physical labour and all the things that you worry about. I went down this road for Ciré but it hasn’t been work for me. It’s a position for me to see that those that are touched by autism have the support that they need and that they deserve. Our community, our parents and our clients deserve it and they need our support.”
A snapshot of some of the upcoming events for Autism Awareness Month:
April 7 – “Open House” at Tomorrow’s Voices Autism Centre – Visit the Centre and meet our staff. Find out what we do and why we do it! See how the therapies we use (ABA and Verbal Behavior Therapy) are changing lives for those touched by developmental disabilities in our community.
April 19 – “Behind the Scenes: A Parents’ Perspective” – Featuring International parent Lorri Shealy Unumb, Vice President, State Government Affairs, Autism Speaks and Local parents, Neil MacGuinness, Wendy Young and Manielle Fox. With autism, many of us all too often underestimate the commitment required by families to help their children become the best they can be. Parents play an essential role in their care and development, and work every day to overcome challenges such as communication problems, sensory issues, challenging behaviors, daily family life, services, and often the immense pressure placed on them from society. We hope that you can join us for this panel discussion where parents graciously share their personal experiences about raising and caring for a child with autism across functioning levels and ages. *Time: 6-9PM | Venue: TBD | Cost: $30 | ATTENDEES MUST REGISTER FOR THIS WORKSHOP