Leah’s dreams coming true (slide show)

MARYSVILLE – Children with autism can feel left out. They don’t often get invited to parties.

That’s one of the reasons Deanna Sheldon started the charitable nonprofit Leah’s Dream Foundation. Donations are spent on numerous free parties throughout the year that give people with disabilities a chance to socialize. About a few hundred people attended a recent one at Marysville-Pilchuck High School called a “Magical Holiday Event.”

It was magical. Santa and Mrs. Claus were there, taking pictures with participants. A music set-up, led by Marysville Life Skills teacher Jim Strickland, played Christmas and other songs, including the popular karaoke choice “Let It Go” from the animated movie “Frozen.”

Craft tables were set up so people could make things like Christmas bulbs. And of course there was more than enough food to go around.

But mostly is was a large group of people, some with disabilities, some not, interacting and having fun.

That idea of inclusion was just what Sheldon was seeking when she and others in 2015 started the foundation, which is named after her daughter Leah. Its major fund-raiser is a golf tournament at Battle Creek Golf Course in Tulalip, where Leah’s dad, Alex Stacy, is the club pro. There also is a dinner-auction that night. And they receive grants from the Tulalip and other tribes.

The foundation’s goal is “to provide social, charitable, economic and other support for families of children and adults with autism. By conducting activities and programs that support and expand the educational, medical, rehabilitative and other opportunities available to children and adults with autism living in Snohomish County.”

Along with the parties, funds also have been used for an all-inclusive playground at Kellogg-Marsh Elementary School and for PECS training for the Marysville School District. In spring of 2017, the foundation donated $45,000 for the playground that includes a music area with congas, casabas, chimes and vibes; and Play Panels that include a tic-tac-toe, driver, tactical and rainbow. Sheldon said it “broke her heart” to see the special needs kids in a different area of the playground at K-M. “Why separate them?” she asked. “All kids can come together and be friends on the playground.”

Leah’s Dream Foundation has been working with Tulalip Youth Services to form a committee for families that have children with special needs. Sheldon said previously those services did not exist. She knew that firsthand because of others in her family who have disabilities.

A donation also sent teachers to receive Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) training. PECS is one of many alternative communication systems aimed at assisting those with autism or physical limitations by conveying their wants and needs to others. Sheldon said she hopes the foundation can expand the ways it helps in the future. She knows the financial strain a child with autism can have on a family. So helping families financially could be a direction the foundation could go.

She foresees the foundation becoming something like the Eagle Wings disAbility Ministries in Marysville – “the wrap-around approach.”

Life changed

Sheldon said when she found out she was having a girl she dreamed Leah would become a softball player like her or a golfer like her dad. But when Leah was 2 she was diagnosed with autism. “All the testing made it perfectly clear,” Sheldon said. “But I was relieved to know.”

Sheldon took Leah to all types of doctors and researched the topic and finally found the right therapist to work with her daughter.

At first, medical insurance didn’t cover much of the cost. “We could have bought a home with all the money we spent on therapy,” Sheldon said.

“We vowed to do whatever we can, whatever avenue possible” to give Leah the best life we could, she added.

Part of that included activities for young people with disabilities. She met Strickland and was impressed with the “tight-knit” community surrounding the high school Life Skills program. “But the younger kids were missing out,” she said.

Excels this year

Leah, 8, is now in the third grade. Since kindergarten Sheldon has tried to get her into general education. “She’s my, ‘Why not?’ her mom said.

The district told her Leah didn’t have the skills to make it. She does now.

Leah’s progress has been exceptional, especially in the last year since she’s been out of the self-contained classroom. She’s come so far that she recently was named student of the month.

Leah’s “smarter than a whip,” her mom said, smiling, adding she loves school now and doesn’t like it when she doesn’t go.

Sheldon gives a lot of the credit to her teacher, Debbie Whitfield, whom she called an “angel.”

Whitfield said Leah has moved up three reading levels in one year. She’s also improved in math and writing. She’s gone from writing four- to eight-word sentences. Even though her hand-writing has become more legible, Whitfield said Leah loves the keyboard because her fine motor skills are challenging. Along with her teachers, others have helped Leah become a better learner.

Having her own paraprofessional helps, as that keeps Leah on task. Working in a whole-group environment also has helped. “We’ve unlocked that opportunity for her,” Whitfield said.

Sheldon also gives credit to two girls who started working with Leah last year – then fifth-graders Jayden Kelly and Summer DuBeava. They gave up their recess to help Leah, and are coming back this year even though they now attend Cedarcrest Middle School. “They never did give up” on Leah, Sheldon said, adding they don’t just play with her. Leah learns from their interaction.

Jayden said she’s stuck with it because she’s known Leah since the first grade. “She’s so fun, so cute,” she said.

Summer added, “Leah depends on us.”

Sheldon said their family also gets a lot of support from her sister Amy and father Ray. Sheldon works at her dad’s transfer station as the recycling manager.

Sheldon said she is getting so much out of running the foundation.

She said helping others “is one of the greatest feelings in the world.”

Sheldon emphasized it’s not all just about Leah.

“There is so much that goes behind Leah’s Dream Foundation it doesn’t represent Leah it represents all children on the autism spectrum because each child deserves equality and to be seen as an individual and not as someone with a disability,” Sheldon says on the leahsdream.org website.

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