WHEELING - A very special graduation ceremony Thursday should be the first of many for three extraordinary youngsters, thanks to their success in Augusta Levy Learning Center's autism therapy program.
Jonah Hercules, 7, Baylee Jones, 4, and 3-year-old Sean Fahey all celebrated the completion of therapy at the North Wheeling center, each wearing the traditional graduate's cap and gown. After entering the room to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance," they received their diplomas following heartfelt, tearful words of encouragement from the therapists who have come to know and love these children as though they were their own.
For Jonah, the journey took four years, but he's now preparing to transition to the public school system.
Augusta Levy Learning Center students, from left, Jonah Hercules, 7, Baylee Jones, 4, and Sean Fahey, 3, sit with therapists, from left, Marissa Gibson, Allison West, Kristen Judy and Alexis Arango during a graduation ceremony for the students Thursday. -- Ian Hicks
"This family was told this child would never speak, and his future was bleak," said Jonah's therapist, Marissa Gibson, fighting back tears as she wished him luck in "big boy school."
With Baylee's father, Army 1st Sgt. Dusty Jones, away from home with his unit, her mother Lori Jones packed the family up and moved to the Wheeling area from their home near Hinton, W.Va., located in Summers County southwest of Beckley.
Now back home again, Sgt. Jones looked every bit the part of a proud father, decked out in his dress blues for his daughter's graduation Thursday. As the family prepares to move back to southern West Virginia, he said it was tough being away, knowing his wife and children were in unfamiliar surroundings.
But Jones knows all the sacrifices his family has made have translated into hope for his precious little girl.
"It was worth every bit of it. ... You can't put a price on your kids," he said.
It was only the third time since the center opened in 2005 that Augusta Levy graduated multiple children from the center at once, according to Executive Director Kathy Shapell. That's important for two reasons - it means those children are ready to take the next step in their development, but it also means the center will be able to welcome three new children from its long waiting list.
"These children have had incredible moments - moments of breakthrough, moments of growth and moments of triumph over challenges. ... The change in them is drastic - almost unbelievable," Shapell said.
Autism affects an estimated 1 in 88 children, but its cause still is not fully known. Autistic children often are just as intelligent as their peers, but need help learning how to learn.
Early intervention is key, and can be the difference between leading a normal life or needing a lifetime of expensive, special care.
Augusta Levy uses the "applied behavior analysis" approach to autism therapy, which takes relatively simple, measurable behaviors and breaks them down into small steps taught through one-on-one instruction and positive reinforcement. Students receive 35 hours of therapy per week, year-round.
Only about 2 percent of an estimated more than 3,000 children with autism in West Virginia receive the type of therapy Augusta Levy provides.