News Article Details

Wendell Foster temporarily closing autism program

Messenger-Inquirer - 3/26/2019

March 26-- Mar. 26--Earlier this month, Wendell Foster emailed a letter to 69 families enrolled in the nonprofit's autism program, notifying them the program would close for a while.

The letter provided parents a 60-day notice that Wendell Foster, a campus that serves people with developmental disabilities, plans to shutter its autism program temporarily later this spring to conduct a major overhaul. That news caught parents off guard, causing concerns about their ability to arrange for an alternative place for their children. Wendell Foster's program provides after-school and summer camp programming.

While school is in session, 18 clients use the program a total of eight hours a week. During the summer, up to 30 kids attend a full-day camp.

Eric Scharf, Wendell Foster CEO, joined the nonprofit in December 2017, giving him time to review its many programs.

The 7-year-old autism program offered social networking and recreational opportunities, Scharf said; however, it lacked research-based programming, individualized curricula and oversight by clinicians. Staff didn't collaborate with school officials or work on client skills.

In short, the program failed to meet Wendell Foster's mission and standards of excellence, Scharf said. Care that is simply adequate should never be the goal.

"It is the overarching belief at Wendell Foster (that) if we can't make a dynamic difference in the field, we should make provisions to re-evaluate what and how we deliver our supports and services," Scharf's letter to parents read. "Unfortunately, we are at the crucial point that our team has concluded that through this program our services are not immensely effective in behavioral development."

Wendell Foster officials plan to create a new autism program that combines behavioral, clinical and recreational services, providing a full spectrum of support. They discussed ways to restructure and improve the program without a temporary closure.

"To do this the right way, we need to shut it down temporarily and build it back up," Scharf said.

He estimates it will take up to eight months to hire and train the right team. He hopes the program is functioning at its optimum level within a year to 18 months.

He would like an autism program that operates eight hours a day and serves children as young as 3 or 4 years old, providing early intervention services.

Scharf said Monday he understands parents' angst. He knows the autism community is underserved. Most facilities, such as Puzzle Pieces, have a long waiting list of clients hoping to get in.

In the letter to parents, Scharf offered the possibility of other services at Wendell Foster to tide them over.

He's also met Monday afternoon with Whitney Logsdon, the founder and executive director of the Owensboro Autism Network. Logsdon was unavailable for comment after the meeting.

"This has been the hardest decision I've made since coming to Owensboro," Scharf said of temporarily closing Wendell Foster's autism program.

In fact, he said, it was one of the hardest decisions of his entire career.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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