When Coby Kneece was diagnosed with autism three days before his third birthday, his mother, Amber, signed him up on “every waiting list in the state” to get the Applied Behavior Analysis therapy he needed. Six months later, when Project HOPE Foundation opened its Greenwood office in September 2016, he was one of the first children to receive therapy there. His mother had to drive an hour each way, twice a day, from the family’s home in Newberry, but it was worth it.
“Coby was nonverbal and wasn’t potty trained. It was like he was in a bubble; he wouldn’t respond and didn’t seem to realize anyone was in the room,” she said. “Now he talks and interacts and likes to play games. Project HOPE has completely changed our lives and given us so much hope. His future is so much brighter and may include finishing high school or college and living on his own.”
In addition to working with him at the clinic, Coby’s therapist took him to be mainstreamed into a regular elementary classroom for a few hours a day until schools were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“This has huge ramifications for our population,” said Susan Sachs, co-founder and executive director of Project HOPE Foundation. “Families have their kids home 24 hours a day, seven days a week, when they’re used to having therapy with others. That’s hard. It’s hard for our clients who thrive on structure now that they don’t have it. It’s hard on our employees.”
Fortunately for Coby and his family, Project HOPE arranged for his therapist to travel from Greenwood to Newberry to provide in-home therapy from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Coby and his therapist had to adjust to bringing what seems like “work” into what used to be a safe space for him. His mother’s concern now is that Coby, a natural homebody, will have a more difficult transition going back to the clinic and school.
Pre-pandemic, things were going well for Project HOPE, which provides a lifespan of autism services at its campuses in Greenville, Landrum, Greenwood, Pendleton, Spartanburg and Woodruff. They had just moved into their newest campus on 30 acres in Landrum. There was much to be grateful for as April, Autism Awareness Month, approached.
“We were just celebrating several of our staff members who had been with us over 10 years and moving into our new facility,” Sachs said. “Now the building is shut down. It’s absolutely turning our world upside down.”
They moved quickly from clinic-based to home-based services.
“To the best of our ability, we’re continuing e-learning with clients. It’s particularly hard for our population who are used to a lot of intervention, prompting and hands-on learning, We’ve seen a lot of creativity from our teachers and program director. They’re trying lots of new things and working hand-in-hand with parents,” said Lisa Lane, HOPE co-founder and executive director.
Participants in the adult day program, Hope Alive, are missing the social interaction they usually get when the group meets from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays for life skills development, outings and employment opportunities.
“At first, they have to get used to being together, then learn to like being together. It’s a joy to watch that evolve,” Lane said. “Now our coordinator is reaching out daily to help them practice those skills at home.”
In addition to changing the way it delivers services, the nonprofit faces funding challenges. HOPE will receive only 10 percent of the expected Exceptional SC scholarships, $21,950 instead of $219,560. Plus, its annual fundraising gala, An Evening of Hope, which typically raises at least $1 million, had to be rescheduled from May 2 to October 9.
“That delay in fundraising creates a significant cash flow concern,” said Sachs.
Project HOPE is meeting these challenges with optimism and action. They are asking the community to continue supporting friends and parents of children with autism as they have in the past. One way to do that is to simply check in.
“We’re doing everything in our power to regain momentum and be there for our families and employees,” Lane said. “Often these families feel isolated already, and some are living in crisis. A quick phone call or text can mean the world.”
Since 2005, the Community Foundation of Greenville has provided $147,350 in funding to Project HOPE Foundation, primarily in grants from the Margaret Linder Southern Endowment. Most of the funds were used to pay for therapy not covered by Medicaid. Other grants were used for technology to support multi-sensory learning and track student progress, teacher training and scholarships to Hope Academy.
Bob Morris, president of the Community Foundation of Greenville, praised the work of Lane and Sachs, who founded Project HOPE Foundation in 1997, soon after their young sons were diagnosed with autism. Today the organization’s programs touch more than 300 individuals and their families each year.
“When I meet people who have an innovative but untested idea, I tell them every great idea starts with two people and hold out Lisa and Susan as an example of what a game-changing impact looks like when it begins,” he said.