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Cindy Dashnaw | May 24, 2017

A student's heartfelt speech inspires Kiwanians to create a quiet haven for children with autism.

A Florida elementary school can offer a safe learning environment to children diagnosed with autism, thanks to one young man and the Kiwanis club that he inspired. 

Matthew Parsons was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at age 13. Now in high school, he told his grandmother, Pat Walton, that he wanted to begin speaking publicly about autism and the people who have it.

When Walton asked if he would deliver his first speech to members of her Kiwanis Club of Fort Myers Metro-McGregor, she heard a resounding “yes.” And the club heard a heartfelt message that inspired them to action.

“We were so impressed by his presentation that we asked his school specialist what we could do to help. She mentioned the need for a sensory room, so that became our goal,” says Harris Segel, club president.

The Autism Society estimates that 1 percent of the world’s population has a disorder on the autism spectrum. In the U.S., that’s one in every 68 children. Children with autism have difficulty regulating their reactions to what goes on around them. The smallest sounds and movements can combine to overwhelm them and make learning impossible. A sensory room is specially designed to help them feel safe and gradually adapt.

While Lee County School District Program Specialist-Autism/Behavior Terri Myles searched for a school with an unused room, members of the Kiwanis Club of Fort Myers Metro-McGregor raised funds. They needed US$1,500 to fully outfit the room.
Segel suggested the club apply for a mini-grant from the Florida Kiwanis Foundation, which subsequently offered a matching grant of $750. Club members raised the needed match through a Mother's Day raffle and their annual signature 5K Race, the BUG (Bring Up Grades) Chase. These events also support the Fort Myers Metro-McGregor service leadership programs.

After two years of the Kiwanians’ hard work, the Blue Room opened this past February inside Tropic Isles Elementary School in North Fort Myers. Segel says that despite the long process, the effort was well worth it.


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