Missouri State University-West Plains announces gift to support school’s transition program for autistic students
WEST PLAINS, Mo. (Edited News Release/KY3) - Officials with Missouri State University-West Plains (MSU-WP) and the Missouri State University Foundation announced a transformational gift from the owners of TJ Swift House, Inc., in West Plains to support the university’s transition program for autistic students.
That program, known as the Autism Support Can Empower New Directions (ASCEND) Program, will now be known as the TJ Swift House ASCEND Program. The program will be housed in the new Center for Autism and Neurodiversity. Officials broke ground on the new $10.5 million facility today following the naming announcement.
Officials also announced a major gift from the Philanthropic Friends Giving Circle that will be used to support the development of the Philanthropic Friends Giving Circle Sensory Garden adjacent to the new center.
“To come this far in so short a time is a testament to two things: First, the overwhelming need for this kind of a program and, second, the great trust and generosity of people like Tracey Hollis, her family, and those who have contributed toward making this program and facility truly special for our autistic students,” said MSU-WP Chancellor Dennis Lancaster.
“Our West Plains campus community is very proud of our unique program and, at the same time, truly humbled by such support,” he added. “If it were not for these friends coming alongside our students and believing in our vision, none of this would have happened. We are truly thankful.”
A history of support for people with disabilities
When the university announced its new autism transition program in April 2022, TJ Swift House, Inc., owners Tracey Hollis of Thomasville, her children Dr. Nate Swift and Keely Swift-Gale, and their spouses Erin Swift and Dylan Gale, all of West Plains, were eager to join the cause.
Hollis and her family have long been known for their efforts to care for those with developmental disabilities. Thirty-three years ago, they transformed their own home into a licensed group home to provide residential living services to nine individuals.
Since then, TJ Swift House, which is contracted through the Missouri Department of Mental Health, has grown to offer day residential and rehabilitation services, shared living services, and respite care for the clients they serve and their families.
Through their agency, Hollis said, she knew of several area children who could benefit from the services the TJ Swift House ASCEND Program would provide.
“We take care of a lot of children who are referred to us. Many of them who complete high school have the intellectual capability to continue their education but not the support system they need to go to college. This program is an answer to prayer for so many of them,” Hollis explained. “Attending college is a goal of theirs, and this program has opened a door for them that before wasn’t even a possibility to consider. The educational opportunities they have at MSU-WP will, in turn, open vocational opportunities for them.”
Hollis hopes that through the TJ Swift House ASCEND Program, area residents will understand that people with an autism diagnosis can still contribute to the success of the community. “A person with a diagnosis still has many talents and gifts they can bring to a workplace or a volunteer program. They can be a viable resource in the community,” she said.
She also is proud that MSU-WP and the West Plains community are one of the first in the nation to undertake such a project as the TJ Swift House ASCEND Program.
“This is not an easy thing they’ve taken on. It’s filled with challenges and obstacles. For MSU-WP to do this project is exceptional, and it speaks so well of the administration and leadership. I’m so proud a community the size of West Plains would take this on. It’s pretty amazing,” Hollis said.
Major gift for a sensory garden
A group of supporters, led by local resident and former Missouri State University Board of Governor member Carol Silvey, has committed to a gift to name the new sensory garden the Philanthropic Friends Giving Circle Sensory Garden.
Mikala King, director of the autism transition program, said the garden will provide a new element of support for students on the spectrum by giving them the benefits of being outdoors while still in an enclosed space.
“Autism is a spectrum that affects people in different ways, but their sensory input is typically heightened,” she explained. “The sensory garden will give our students a calming outdoor space where they can relax, work on homework, and have a small social space with swings, tables, and a water feature. Having the sensory garden goes above and beyond by providing multiple ways for our students to feel less distracted and able to focus on their goals in college.”
Breaking ground for the center
Before breaking ground for the new Center for Autism and Neurodiversity, university officials thanked Missouri State legislators who were instrumental in securing state funding for the project, specifically 33rd District State Sen. Karla Eslinger (R-Wasola) and 154th District State Rep. David Evans (R-West Plains), as well as Missouri Gov. Mike Parson for signing the legislation that earmarked $7.5 million for the project in June 2022.
They also thanked the Howell County Commission for providing $500,000 from its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for the project.
An additional $2.5 million was provided through the President’s Enhancement Fund at MSU in Springfield.
King said the building, which is approximately 9,300 square feet, has been specifically designed for those on the autism spectrum. It will include indirect lighting; different textures on carpet, walls, and furniture; sound-absorbing materials; break-out rooms designed uniquely to help calm over-stimulation; and a classroom space.
“A new degree program with an emphasis in autism will be utilizing this classroom space,” she added. “The classroom space is designed to teach individuals about autism and how to best support their needs to allow them to be successful in a classroom setting. Lowered ceilings in one area of the room provides for a smaller, calmer space with flexible seating.
“The classroom also can be used for training those in our community who wish to work with those on the spectrum,” she added. “Our goal is not only to provide a space for autistic individuals and teaching others about autism but also to become a place where those in the community can find resources. We again are ecstatic about what this building will bring not only to our campus but to our community, as well.”
“We at the Missouri State University Foundation have always known this community is special, but the efforts to rally around this program and the students being impacted are the perfect testament to that,” said Rachel Peterson, director of development and annual giving at MSU-WP. “The program wouldn’t exist without Tracey and her family. The Philanthropic Friends Giving Circle Sensory Garden would not exist without Carol and her friends. And the work being done by Dr. Angie Totty’s team, led by Mikala King, is truly changing lives. It’s all wrapped up in the perfect facility, thanks to our city, county, and state officials. I can’t wait to see how many lives will be changed because of the TJ Swift House ASCEND Program.”
For more information about the TJ Swift House ASCEND Program, visit //WP.MissouriState.edu/ASCEND or call 417-255-7711.
For more information about giving to MSU-WP, visit https://wp.missouristate.edu/UniversityAdvancement/, email WPAdvancement@MissouriState.edu or call 417-255-7240.
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