After 45 years, GHA still going strong, offering services for those with autism

Over the past four and a half decades, despite the many changes Stanly County has faced, GHA Autism Supports has remained consistent in its mission to provide care and support to individuals across the state diagnosed with autism.

Created in 1978, GHA offers services to roughly 100 people. In addition to its facilities in Albemarle, it has a satellite service in Wilmington.

Autism spectrum disorder is a “group of developmental disabilities” that typically affects a person’s communication, social skills and behavior, according to the Autism Society of North Carolina. ASD is a brain disorder that impacts individuals differently as no two people with ASD are the same.

“Throughout the last 45 years since the inception of GHA Autism Supports, we have evolved from a nonprofit that was born from the vision and ideas of families that longed for something more to enhance the quality of lives for their loved ones to a leader in the autism community internationally,” said CEO Dawn Allen.

She added that over the years “the conversation around diversity and inclusion has picked up significantly…and I am proud to say that we are transitioning to a world where people with autism are universally understood and accepted. It has been a privilege for our GHA team to witness first-hand the journey of so many individuals with autism reaching their highest potential and celebrating alongside them every step of the way.”

Organizations like GHA and the services it provides are as important as ever as autism diagnoses have become more common in recent years.

About 1 in 36 children had been diagnosed with autism by age 8 in 2020, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from 1 in 44 children in 2018 and 1 in 150 children in 2000. There is no specific data regarding Stanly County rates.

With the uptick in diagnoses comes a rethinking of April as Autism Awareness Month to it representing Autism Acceptance Month, according to GHA Autism Supports Chief Development Officer Beth Olivieri.

“We want to focus more on not just being aware but actually promoting inclusion into the community,” GHA Chief Innovations Officer Janet Banks added.

Though any resident in the state can be eligible for GHA’s services, as long as they have a primary diagnosis of autism and are a North Carolina resident, preferences are made to those in the county. Once in the program, an array of residential facilities (both children and adolescent homes along with apartments for adults) are offered.

An Autism Acceptance lunch was held a few weeks ago to celebrate the organization’s 45 anniversary and to highlight community partners including Kathy Odell, Stanly County’s Special Olympics coordinator, and First Presbyterian Church, which hosts an annual arts show featuring several artists associated with GHA.

One of GHA’s biggest projects over the past few years has been the creation of Morrow Valley Farmstead, a 10-bed, long-term care facility situated on 50 acres of land at the base of Morrow Mountain which opened at the end of 2021. The facility provides specialized services for aging individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities.

Morrow Valley provides housing for 10 residents, all from North Carolina, with ages ranging from early 30s to 60s.

The program offers 24-hour health services, telemedicine and progressive technology such as the MedWand device, used for many purposes including taking a resident’s temperature and producing an electrocardiogram or EKG, and pilot software that tracks falls within the facility and sends alerts to nursing staff to respond as needed.

“It’s been wonderful…getting to know some new individuals and helping them be included within our local community,” director Ryan McIntyre said.

In a partnership with master gardeners from Stanly County Extension Center, a sensory garden, which will engage all the resident’s senses, will be in place by the end of May. West Stanly High School woodworking teacher Charles Edwards and his students built two wheelchair-accessible raised beds to be used in the garden.

“We wanted this sensory garden to be one accessible to all individuals there,” GHA development coordinator Lori Ivey said.

Many individuals who are part of GHA also work at Second Street Sundries, the cafe and coffee shop GHA owns and operates in downtown Albemarle. Eight people with autism are employed at Sundries. GHA also has its Day Services Program, which is in the bottom floor of the shop.

Much of the cafe’s ingredients, such as basil and free roaming eggs, comes from Carolina Farms, a 39-acre farm in the Millingport area which GHA owns. There are three residential settings, along with a barn and two greenhouses on the property.

The organization also utilizes innovative approaches to engage with many of the people it supports. As part of a Duke Endowment grant focused on whole-person care, residents at Morrow Valley have the opportunity to participate in yoga each week. Other components that will be implemented include aromatherapy and relaxation, medical massages and chiropractic care, Ivey said.

GHA will host its annual Rubber Duck Derby at 1 p.m. May 20 at the Stanly County YMCA pool. More than 7,000 ducks are “up for adoption,” Olivieri said. The person whose duck finishes first in the race will win $3,000.

“It’s one of our biggest annual fundraisers,” Olivieri said, noting GHA brings in about $50,000 each year.