Twenty years after they founded Hope Academy, Susan Sachs and Lisa Lane’s unexpected mission continues

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Lisa Lane and Susan Sachs. Photo by Will Crooks

Lisa Lane and Susan Sachs hadn’t planned on starting a nonprofit organization and a school two decades ago, but they couldn’t find the programs needed by their young sons, newly diagnosed with autism, anywhere else.

“There’s nobody as determined as a mom with a child in need,” Sachs said. “You’ll do anything.”

So they started the Project Hope Foundation and a small preschool where children with autism and neurotypical kids attended classes side-by-side.

“It was supposed to be a temporary thing,” Sachs said.

Today, the school and its offshoot, the HOPE Foundation, serve about 300 people in the Upstate a day and are raising money to construct a permanent home in Greenville.

“It’s a mission now,” Sachs said.

Lives turned upside down

Lisa Lane and her son, Cody (left), and Susan Sachs and her son, Michael (right).

Lane and Sachs were on a path familiar to many Upstate moms in 1996 — they were working and raising their families until the diagnoses of autism changed everything.

Lane knows the exact date when she realized something wasn’t right with her second son, Colby — April 6, 1996.

It was her older son’s birthday, and she noticed Colby, whom she saw as self-sufficient and independent, wasn’t participating in the party. “He was just not a part of it,” she said.

Lane noted Colby was inconsistent in his responses to sound. At first, she thought he was deaf, especially after she dropped a stack of books on the floor and he did not flinch. That theory was dismissed after Colby, who was not 2 years old yet, came running after Lane put a Barney video in the VCR and the theme song started to play.

An attorney turned stay-at-home mom, Lane heard about an autism conference at Converse College and attended. Even at that time, she thought that the chance of Colby having the disorder was a long shot. But two months later, her son was diagnosed with autism.

For Sachs, it took a lot longer.

Her son Michael walked early, talked early. He spoke in sentences. He flirted if he saw a cute young girl or a gray-haired woman. “We’d go to the mall and he’d wave and say, ‘Hey! Hey!’ He was a really outgoing child,” Sachs said.

That all changed when he was about 15 months old.

Michael didn’t react at all when he saw his grandmother. He became oblivious to other children around him. At first, Sachs and doctors wondered if her son’s behavior was a reaction to his father being transferred to New Jersey for his job. “We thought it might have to do with his dad being gone, but it never got better,” she said.

Doctors told her to give it time. Friends who were in social work told her that kids sometimes lose skills. Michael’s father thought he was deaf. Barney once again proved that theory wrong.

The family tried traditional therapies — speech, occupational. There was no improvement.

Too young, too old

 When Lane attended the autism conference at Converse College, she found out about applied behavior analysis (ABA), a therapy that involves targeting specific objectives in order to teach communication and social and cognitive skills.

After her son was diagnosed, Lane said she called every ABA provider in the country. Nobody would take him because he was too young. So she flew in a consultant from California so she could start doing the therapy at home. Other parents of children with autism used the consultant as well. Together they shared the cost of airfare, hotel, meals, and time.

But Sachs and Lane knew that their sons needed more. They knew their sons needed to interact with typical kids. Finding a preschool that would take kids with autism proved to be difficult.

“Michael spent a year at a private preschool, but he was not a part of that class,” she said. “I knew he needed to be in a structured program where he could practice those skills. It had to be a small classroom, and preschools are not profitable that way.”

So they decided to start one themselves.

Sachs had a friend who went to Advent United Methodist Church on Woodruff Road. The church’s pastor had met with the administrative council and talked about the possibility of starting a preschool. If they had one, it would have to be one-of-a-kind.

“We came in, told our story and what we were looking to do,” Sachs said.

Soon, they found themselves looking for used learning materials. They ran advertisements in the newspaper for teachers. They bought office supplies.

That September, Hope Academy began with 18 students, three of whom were diagnosed with autism, and six teachers.

From the beginning, the school was a labor of love. “We didn’t take a salary for seven years,” Sachs said.

Unexplained increase

Children with autism seem typical until, sometime in the first three years of life, they don’t anymore. Autistic children might seem deaf until hearing tests show they aren’t. They talk until the words stop.

According to the Autism Society of America, others signs include little or no eye contact, insistence on sameness, obsessive attachment to objects, and not wanting to be cuddled. It’s the overall pattern, not any single trait, that’s indicative of the complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.

When Sachs and Lane started the Project Hope Foundation, the incidence of autism was 1 in every 2,800 children. Now, it’s 1 in every 68. Experts don’t know the reasons for the sharp increase — it’s been attributed to environmental causes, genetics, changing criteria, and better detection.

Whatever the cause, Sachs and Lane say there’s no reason to think that demand for services won’t continue to increase.

“It doesn’t seem like it will do anything but grow,” Sachs said.

Rendering by McMillan Pazdan Smith

Looking to the future

Today, Hope Academy is housed at the Temple of Israel at 400 Spring Forest Drive. It has 101 students and 27 teachers. “We could fill an additional five classrooms now,” Lane said, regarding the school’s current space.

Hope Academy has purchased land at 501 E. Butler Road in Mauldin next to Mauldin City Park for its first permanent facility in Greenville. “It’s hard to do early morning, late evening, and weekend services when you’re in somebody else’s space,” Sachs said. “There’s a big need for after-school programs and early morning drop-off.”

Lane said the Butler Road property is an ideal location because the park is within walking distance and students from nearby Mauldin High have worked with the school since 2002.

To meet all their goals, Hope Academy is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise the $9.8 million to build and furnish a new school. So far, $1.2 million has been raised and another nearly $1 million pledged in in-kind donations.

Lane said almost half the school’s students are able to move into mainstream programs and others show significant growth. “Some children gain enough skills that you wouldn’t realize the diagnosis was in place if you weren’t told,” she says. “There’s so much potential here. That’s the beauty and the heartbreak.”

And that potential is evident in Lane’s son, Colby, now 22. Where he once struggled to differentiate between four words — ball, shoe, movie, and cup — he now communicates with people every day. “He’s living a very successful life,” Lane said.

Cody Lane and Michael Sachs

Colby is not alone. Michael, now 25, is part of Hope Alive, a pilot program the Project HOPE Foundation is running in partnership with South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation that helps participants develop life and job skills. Hope Alive is one of several programs run by the foundation, which now has campuses in Greenwood and Woodruff. A new campus will soon open in downtown Spartanburg.

Sachs said she feels good about what the foundation and Hope Academy has done. “Autism is a difficult hand, but like anything difficult, good things come from it,” she said.

While there have been times of struggle for the foundation and Hope Academy, both Sachs and Lane said they would do it again. “How can you look at the miracles that happen here every day and say no?” Lane said.

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