How a Virginia facility is giving families free resources to navigate autism diagnosis

Posted at 12:22 PM, Feb 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-19 12:47:29-05

SOUTH HILL, Va.--Navigating an autism diagnosis in a child can be extremely difficult, especially for families in rural Southside Virginia where resources are slim.

But a new first-of-its-kind facility is opening its doors to give families some relief and children a chance at success.

"When he saw us pull up in the parking lot, he started squealing because he knows where he is," explained mom Hannah Rethman.

Her four-year-old son Logan has nonverbal autism, and he feels right at home at the Bailey Center.

"He walks in those doors, and he knows that he can be himself," she explained. "He can play in a safe environment.”

The sensory-friendly space offers therapies and activities for children with autism and other disabilities.

"When he was two, he just hit a huge regression," said Rethman. "He stopped making progress. He stopped saying things. He stopped doing things, no more peekaboo, no more putting his toys in a bucket, he just totally stopped. He's four now, and he still has never spoken or he's never said mama never no, I love you nothing.”

For the past two years, Rethman’s only option to get her son the care he needs included a two-hour drive to Richmond, three to four days a week.

"As his mom, I want him to have a happy, fun-filled life with minimal dependency," noted Rethman. "It wouldn't be possible. He wouldn't be able to get the therapies he needs."

"It's definitely been a need in our community for a long time and the surrounding areas," explained Mandi Calhoun, co-founder of The Bailey Center.

That’s exactly why Calhoun has made it her mission to give children like Logan and her son Bailey, a chance to grow and succeed close to home.

"When Bailey was diagnosed with autism, we had a social worker come in and asked if we could relocate our family because Southside Virginia didn't have the services to meet his needs," said Calhoun. "Our family's here, and my husband's work here, and that just wasn't an option for us.”

In 2016, Calhoun helped launch FEAT, which stands for Families Embracing Autism Together. The non-profit works to provide free education, training, and resources to Southside Virginia families impacted by autism and other disabilities.

Opening this facility, named after her son, has been an 8-year dream.

"Do you like that it's called The Bailey Center after you?" asked Calhoun. "Yeah," answered an energetic Bailey.

"People think he's different, but to me everybody's different," noted 15-year-old Carter Early. "So I see Bailey as one of my best friends.”

Early lives next door to Bailey and volunteers with FEAT. He even helped the nonprofit launch Buddy Ball, an inclusive sports league, where he met Jacob Worley.

"We hang out, play buddy ball together, have fun, kick some butts, and keep on going forward," said Worley, who loves basketball.

"Seeing him jump up and down or maybe blow a kiss to the crowd, it's very exciting," laughed Early.

The Bailey Center will offer Jacob, an aspiring chef, the chance to improve his skills.

"Culinary classes and very different things to look forward to and keep on going forward," he noted.

Of all these brick building promises: dance classes, movie nights, therapies, the most important is the feeling it’s giving families: hope.

"Him just making meaningful sounds is so big," said Rethman, as she played with Logan on the slides. "I hope he says mama! I can't wait. I'm so hopeful for the day I hear either mama or mom or just anything.”

The Bailey Center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and they welcome anyone in the area to use their free services.

The nonprofit runs entirely on donations, so to donate or find out more about the free community events they hope to offer, visit this link:

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