On the last Friday of Autism awareness month, our Tuthill plastics division in Clearwater, Florida was outside grilling, dancing and raising money for Florida Autism Center of Excellence (F.A.C.E.). It is a tuition-free, public charter school serving children affected by autism. Ralph Guthrie, Tuthill's Quality Assurance Manager led the fundraiser as his son, Jacob has attended this school for 10 years.
Dick Curtin, Tuthill Plastic's president and Dave Schneider grilled burgers and hot dogs, with meals benefitting F.A.C.E. Raffle tickets entered you for a chance to win lottery tickets, gift cards and five PTO days. They also had a silent auction for autism t-shirts, magnets and bracelets.
They raised $1,484 from Clearwater employees, Tuthill's corporate office and Ring Central, who was on site. Additional donations were made online directly to F.A.C.E.
"The generosity of the people here is extraordinary," said Paula Spencer of Tuthill who helped with the event.
Jacob Guthrie, Ralph's son, made a surprise appearance at the fundraiser. He visited the shop, ate and danced with the crew.
"He says so much without words," Paula said of Jacob. "It was especially fun to see him interact in his way with others and see a smile break out." She was happy to dance with Jacob. "He's got rhythm and a heck of a throwing arm!" she added. Jacob even showed Dick Curtin a few of his dance moves to "Up Town Funk."
"The community within Tuthill just leaves me in awe," said Lisa Guthrie, Jacob's mom. "So many people across the country have come together just to uplift this group of children."
F.A.C.E. serves more than 100 students ages three to 22. They have 11 classrooms and are in their 10th year of operation. "The Guthries have been with us since the beginning. Jacob has made a lot of progress with us," Anne Russell, F.A.C.E.'s principal said.
Our belief that every child has the ability to succeed. It takes a village. It's not what we do in eight hours. It's what can we all do together working holistically as a team to support that child," Russell said. "Tuthill is part of the Guthries community and their village."
"There's not enough money for education in general, but if you talk about our specific group, it gets even tighter,” Russell said.
The funds raised are used for technologies like smart boards and tablets, new program materials and curriculums. "That technology might really to help to break down barriers to access the curriculum," Russel said. The larger the better. The students are able to witness cause and effect directly on the screen. The school also boasts a garden, a recess area and playground.
For the Guthries, F.A.C.E. is part of their extended family. They describe the school as a godsend and a safe haven for Jacob. To top it off, "the people at this school just love him to death. He's arock start here," Lisa said.
Jacob is 15 years old and he is profoundly affected by autism. He does not speak in words, but as his father describes, "he can yell with the best of us. He's got these high chirps pitches. He's pretty fun to listen to," Ralph said.
While communicating can be a challenge, the Guthries say Jacob is a very happy, outgoing child. The stereotype is that all people with autism are introverts, Lisa explained. "They do have social issues, but it doesn't mean they don't like to be around people."
With Jacob's laughter comes a side of humor. Lisa said one evening when they came back home, she asked him to put his sandals up. "A few minutes later Jacob starts flapping and clapping and he's standing on kitchen counter and put them on top of the cabinet," Lisa said.
Jacob also has, what Lisa describes as a very strange athleticism. "He's a third baseman, he just doesn't know how to play baseball." On Sundays, Jacob will often find a picture of a Tampa Bay Rays player in the bring it to his mother. He enjoys sitting and listening to her read the story about the latest baseball news.
These lighthearted moments are also accompanied with struggle. Ralph has adapted much of their home over the years to prevent any injuries Jacob could sustain. All of the windows are plexiglass, and the walls are made with acrylic in case Jacob were to make contact with them. While Jacob does enjoy time alone playing in his room with a soccer ball, he must be closely monitored at all times.
"He'll never be independent or dress himself. He doesn't feed himself. If it's mashed potatoes he's good [though]," Lisa said.
This has been the reality for Guthries for many years. At 10 months old, Jacob began having seizures. From ages two to four, he had 18 seizures per day on average. He was put on a strict ketogenic (high fat, low carbohydrate) diet and took nine different medications to get the seizures controlled. He was diagnosed with Autism at age three and began attending F.A.C.E. when he was five.
F.A.C.E. — A Second Family
Lisa is Jacob's primary caretaker. She drives him the hour plus to school each way. Ralph and Lisa's older daughter help watch Jacob once he comes home. F.A.C.E. truly is the only assistance the Guthries have with Jacob.
"Jake's never going to live independently. We know that. The best thing we want for him is to be able to participate in the household," Lisa said.
Jacob used to swipe off anything sitting on a horizontal surface like a table or desk. "We had broken so many dishes that we went to plastic. We now have china back in the kitchen," Lisa said. Over the course of three years, his instructors worked to desensitize him by velcroing everything down. "Now I'm the one who breaks dishes in the dishwasher, not Jake," Lisa laughed.
For 10 years, F.A.C.E. has worked with Jake on dressing and undressing. One day recently, Jake went into his bedroom and closed his door. After it had been quiet for a while, Lisa entered his room to find him undressed with only a handkerchief and socks on. She laughed. "Now we have a to set a new [lesson] of when it's appropriate to undress," Lisa said.
"The teachers and staff here are amazing. They look at him as an individual. They try to peel back the layers of behavior to get to the root," Lisa said.
Jacob has a companion at F.A.C.E. who has proved to become a fast friend. Jason works with Jacob one-on-one every day. Russell said there is a "big brother the bond between them."
"Jason is a very caring an empathetic person and subscribes to the motto of different, not less. He is able to look past Jacob's limitations and challenges to see his strengths shine through," Russell said. She said that they have a connection she doesn't often see.
Recently, Jason came by the house on a Sunday to say hello. "When he saw Jason come in the front door he just squealed," his mother said.
Jacob is more likely to make eye contact with Jason. He smiles and gets very silly with him. Russell has noticed an increase in Jacob's engagement with others. Previously, Jacob would typically only respond to gestures. Now, Jacob is initiating more interaction with people.
"All I wanted for him was a goal," Lisa said. "I just want him to be healthy and happy. If I can meet these two goals daily, I don't care if we get anything else."
Honeymoon Island Escape
There was a time when Jacob was in a wheelchair and the doctors weren't sure if he would walk without assistance. Ralph took a few years off work to spend with his son. His fondest memories were taking Jacob to Honeymoon Island State Park just north of Clearwater.
He brought his son out into the water and eventually got him to move his feet and make steps while submerged. These were movements he would not do anywhere else. The water exercise strengthen his muscle tone in his legs, and within months, Jacob was walking unassisted at age four.
This beach is filled with fond memories, and is one of Jacob's favorite places to visit. It's a two mile stretch of soft white sand out to a point. When he was little, they rolled him in a stroller. Now, he outpaces his parents. "We let him run and try to keep up with him best we can," Ralph said.
Lisa spends much of her time volunteering at Jacob's school. Now, she is focusing on giving back with her art skills. When Jacob was born, she gave up her job, but she said she never fully gave up on her passion for photography. She is opening a photography business with her daughter, who is a stay-at-home mother as well called Marley Photography Tampa Bay.
The women shoot weddings and portraits. They are giving all F.A.C.E. staff a 75% discount on photography work. "Community comes from individuals and you couldn't pay these people what they're worth," Lisa said.