True Mercy

Austin, Minnesota: An Autism-Friendly Town

 

The Famous Hormel Historic Home

In my novel True Mercy, Bruce often had to worry about his son Adam’s behavior in social settings. But if the story took place in Austin, Minnesota, he would have had much less to worry about. That’s because Austin is an autism-friendly town. Ten years ago, the community used their resources to educate local business owners about autism and train them to be aware of these customers’ needs. The town even has a community autism resource specialist. Therefore, Austin’s residents are probably more aware than most about the signs of autism that my story’s character Adam displayed: intense fixation on specific topics, unusual body movements like hands flapping, echolalia (word repetition), and meltdowns caused by feeling overwhelmed.

So how did the small town of Austin make itself autism-friendly? Just go in the Hormel Historic Home, a nonprofit museum dedicated to all things Spam, the canned meat that has been produced by Hormel Foods there for 81 years. Mary Barinka works there. She once worked as a Hormel marketing executive and is now the town’s autism resource specialist as well as a museum employee. Barinka has a sixteen-year-old daughter with autism. Along with working at the museum, she handles questions and requests from parents that can range from how to give a presentation to new business owners and their employees on becoming autism-friendly, where to find a good speech therapist, and how to help a local community college launch a special autism program.

You may wonder what business owners must do to make their establishments autism-friendly. Often individuals with autism react negatively to overstimulation, so these changes can include dimming the store’s lights, lowering the music volume, and training employees to speak slowly and in short phrases, and to be prepared to have more patience than usual.

The program began when retired Hormel executive and family friend Gary Ray asked Barinka if her then six-year-old daughter was able to participate in summer camp. Barinka told him she and her husband would like her to attend camp but it was not possible because they would need the camp to understand their daughter’s special needs and they would have to hire a helper. Ray and his wife then offered a donation for Barinka to start a camp. She jumped on it. The Ray’s have since donated over $100,000 to fund more programs such as a monthly respite night with children’s activities to give parents and caregivers a break, a peer program at the high school where student volunteers to spend time with another high schooler with autism one-on-one, day camps, and of course, the museum.

Hearing about the town’s programs, new families have moved in. Barinka also gets calls for advice from other towns who would like to set up their own autism-friendly programs.

Perhaps someday I will be able to visit Austin, Minnesota. I am sure my fictional character Adam and real-life individuals with autism would thrive in this town.

Information for this post came from The Washington Post article “The town that gave the world Spam is proud to be ‘autism-friendly’ by Amy Ellis Nutt.

True Mercy can be purchased on Amazon, IngramSpark, and Smashwords.

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Shaquem Griffin and NFL: Story of Inspiration

I’ve been wanting to write a post about an inspirational person. This past weekend, I saw Shaquem Griffen and his twin brothe Shaquill on TV during the NFL draft and realized I had my post.

Shaquem Griffen was born with a pre-birth condition known as Amniotic Band Syndrome, which occurs when a limb in the fetus becomes entrapped in amniotic bands while still in the womb. In Griffin’s case, a band wrapped around his left hand had cut off circulation. Pain wracked his hand during his first few years of life, and one day his mother found him in the kitchen trying to cut off his hand with a knife. The next day his family took him for surgery to amputate that hand.

Shaquem said he had to work harder than everyone else to prove he was just as capable. He and his twin brother Shaquill played football growing up, and both earned scholarships to the University of Central Florida. However, during their first years of college, Shaquill played on the UCF football team while Shaquem got redshirted for the first year, playing second string, and then getting bumped down to third string. Then in the third season, his luck changed. The coach brought him back to play for the team.

And play he did. For the next two seasons the team was the undefeated, national champions. In 2016, Shaquem was named the American Athletic Conference Defense Player of the Year.

Now Shaquem has been drafted to play with the Seattle Seakhawks, reuniting him with Shaquill, who was drafted by Seattle last year.

Shaquem has a message he wishes to impart based on his life experience:

I’ve had people doubt me my whole life, and I know that there are a lot of kids out there with various deformities or birth defects or whatever labels people want to put on them, and they’re going to be doubted, too. And I’m convinced that God has put me on this earth for a reason, and that reason is to show people that it doesn’t matter what anybody else says, because people are going to doubt you regardless. That’s a fact of life for everybody, but especially for those with birth defects or other so-called disabilities.

The important thing is that you don’t doubt yourself.

In addition, Shaquem’s father taught him never to quit with a motto he always keeps in mind: “Nothing comes easy.”

Shaquem Griffen drafted by the Seahawks
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Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Not Yet Achieved

 

On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery. Unfortunately, 156 years later, slavery is still taking place in the United States as well as all over the world.

To commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation and to send the message that any form of slavery is unacceptable and will not be tolerated, the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking (NJCAHT) held the event “Human Trafficking: Surviving and Thriving” on Monday, April 16, 2018.

Many speakers informed the event’s attendees about the plight of human trafficking victims and the efforts to assist them. Sister Mary Beth Lloyd of John Corr Family Resources described the extreme poverty in Brazil that leads many families to prostitute their daughters in order to feed their families. The average age of these girls is 6-9 years old and the nuns run a mission to shelter and rescue as many girls as possible. Monica Kristen of Dreamcatchers spoke about their work to provide crisis counseling, follow-up when survivors return home, and job assistance. Dreamcatchers currently has four offices and 600 clients. Kate Lee of NJCAHT explained their latest project of distributing soap bars with NJCAHT’s contact information to hotels, a common place where traffickers bring their victims. The audience also heard testimonies from human trafficking survivors.

Attendees donated outfits for survivors preparing for job interviews.

For more information, contact the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking at INFO@njhumantrafficking.org or call their number at 201-901-2111. Many committees and programs are always looking for volunteers.

Human trafficking is the second fastest growing criminal organization in the world and the only way to make strides to combat it is for us to unite against it. Much progress has been made but still much more work needs to be done.

After attending the event, I realize there needs to be a mobilization of great kindness and support to battle this extreme evil.

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