Alyssa Ray enjoys things every 3-year-old does: she loves to play games, color, read books and watch television. Unlike other 3-year-olds, it has taken Alyssa months to learn to perform these simple acts due to one simple fact: Alyssa has autism.
Autism, a complex disability that impacts the development of social interaction and communication skills, has not only been a part of Alyssa’s life, but also of her mom’s, Penny Ray, a Mayfield, Ky. native.
“As soon as I read the diagnostic criteria for autism, I knew my toddler was autistic,” said Ray, a UT Martin alum. “At the same time, I was reading three books chronicling the recoveries of four children from autism using Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). I wanted the same recovery of autism for my child that the children in the books experienced.”
ABA is therapy in which three components (people, programming and practice) work together for at least two years to enable autistic children to learn. It has been successful in 90 percent of cases. In ABA, data is painstakingly recorded and tracked, for the data demonstrates progress (or lack of progress) and ultimately drives the child’s curriculum.
ABA therapy, while very successful, is also very expensive.
“If you are not able to give your child 40 hours a week of one-on-one time,” said Ray, “you must hire tutors to work with your child.”
These tutors can be difficult to obtain with limited cash resources. A Michigan newspaper featured an article last summer detailing the plight of the Ray family. Penny e-mailed it to everyone she knew, never expecting the news that was to come.
“I e-mailed a copy to David Belote, husband to one of my good friends from college, Dawne Damron Belote,” said Ray.
“I had no idea that the story touched the Belotes so deeply that David offered Alyssa as one of the Leaders-In-Residence (LIR) project possibilities, until David, Grace and Eric phoned us out of the blue one Tuesday night in October.”
LIR, a UT Martin leadership development and scholarship program, consists of freshman who have been past presidents of student councils, Honor Society, Beta Club or state officers in any student organization. In exchange for their scholarships, students take up a community service project.
“Penny sent us a very moving article from The Oakland Press, in Oakland, Mich., which told of the challenges associated with autism and the challenges Penny has faced and is facing raising a child with autism,” said Belote, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs at UT Martin and LIR instructor.
“I copied the article and shared it with my class. They were so moved that they wanted to help Alyssa and the family. They have been working hard for the last semester to raise funds to assist with Alyssa’s therapy and raising the autism awareness in the community.”
Ray was shocked to hear of the support that was going to be given to her and her family.
“I was absolutely speechless. I have to say, I’d pretty much given up hope on society in general,” said Ray. “Individuals have been beams of shining light, in the darkness of society’s lack of interest.”
The LIR class got to work, led by student leaders Grace Moss of South Fulton, and Eric Rivera of Columbia, Tenn. Several fundraisers were held and students went to area businesses asking for donations.
“Money shouldn’t hold Alyssa back from being the person she
can be,” said Rivera.
The group raised more than $1,800 last semester and presented the Rays with a check during Thanksgiving break.
“Because of LIR, autism is not being ignored,” said Ray. “Because of LIR, more children might be identified earlier, and more children can recover. Because of LIR, programs for autistic children may be born to support families like ours.”
The UT Martin Greek community also did their part to contribute to the Ray family. All proceeds from the 2003 UT Martin Greekfest, which include fraternity and sorority activities such as line dance, Jail and Bail for Alyssa, a steak dinner, Lip Sync and Steppin’ benefited Alyssa’s Ray of Hope.
Autism information was also distributed at some events, which took place Feb. 2-8. The Greekfest proceeds for Alyssa’s Ray of Hope totaled $5,000, for a grand total of $6,800 raised by UT Martin students for the Ray family.
“Every dime raised for Alyssa will go directly to her home programming. We need the funding,” said Ray. “But the bigger picture is about reaching out and helping others.”
Ray also had a parting word for the LIR students after meeting them Thanksgiving break.
“Next time you see [Alyssa], you’ll be able to have a conversation with her,” said Ray. “Thank you.”