In February 2023, NECC parent Mike McKenna embarked on a trek walking across the United States to raise money for The New England Center for Children (NECC), where his son, Michael, has been a student for 17 years. After a solid start, McKenna suffered a medical setback that forced him to rethink his journey. Rather than quit on his mission, a determined McKenna reimagined the trip, opting to pick up where he left off in California and drive the route east. While his mode of transportation changed, his goal did not: to raise awareness of autism, to share Michael’s story with others, and to show that children with autism matter.
Across two weeks, McKenna drove from Los Angeles to Jupiter Beach, FL, meeting with autism advocates, supporters, and NECC staff alumni along the way. He also raised more than $86,000, which will fund specialized equipment and enrichment opportunities for students at the school. McKenna’s drive uncovered heartwarming stories of autism advocates and educators and hard truths about autism such as limited resources, awareness, and staffing.
“There are teachers and administrative professionals that dedicate their lives to kids and adults with autism. It’s a high burnout business, and these are some of the finest human beings on earth. They work tirelessly for others while asking little for themselves,” shared McKenna. “Wherever NECC-trained staff are today, they are taking the gold standard of autism education and care to help thousands of children with autism and the communities that support them. The importance of NECC is not local, and my journey made this clear to me. While NECC is housed in Southborough, its impact is national and international.”
Below are some of the highlights of McKenna’s journey.
Prior to beginning his cross-country drive, McKenna visited Marymount University in Arlington, VA, where he spoke to two psychology classes at the invitation of Professor Linda McKenna Gulyn, MSEd, PhD. In the two classes, McKenna shared his first-hand experience with autism and dealing with the extraordinary challenges that come with an autism diagnosis. The students were engaged, and the conversations were stimulating. These college students were also introduced to NECC as a potential employer, offering free graduate school and a meaningful career in autism education. “My stop at Marymount University opened an important dialogue between the school and NECC,” said McKenna.
The next day, McKenna joined NECC recruiter Glorie Vital at a career fair at the University of Maryland. Here, he met with college students interested in a career in autism education and shared his story as a parent of a child with autism.
Los Angeles, CA
After a busy few days, McKenna flew from Washington, DC to Los Angeles to pick up where he left off with his walk and to begin his drive to Florida. While in California, McKenna met a gentleman named Ramon whose partner has a 4-year-old daughter with autism and shared a “touching moment” with him. “We shared our stories, our hopes and dreams for the futures of our loved ones and shared a few tears in the process,” said McKenna. “We became instant teammates and are now connected sharing information and helping one another.”
In Phoenix, McKenna met up with a former colleague and hosted a small reception to bring awareness of The New England Center for Children and how they help individuals with autism. According to McKenna, some of the guests were directly affected by autism and “it ushered a beautiful and honest exchange that I will never forget. That night, strangers became friends. It is amazing how much autism has affected our worlds directly or indirectly.”
El Paso, TX
McKenna stopped at the El Paso Autism Center to share information and experiences. During his visit, he met a woman named Molly, a full-time employee who works, fundraises, networks, educates, and devotes her personal and professional life to the autism mission. She is also a single mom raising two small children, both of whom are on the autism spectrum. “When you look around for a soldier for autism, look at Molly,” shared McKenna. “Molly is fighting the autism fight on multiple fronts every day.”
San Antonio, TX
While traveling through Texas, McKenna stopped in San Antonio to visit with NECC staff alumna and one of Michael’s former teachers Libby Rokowski, EdD, BCBA. Rokowski lives in San Antonio with her husband and three children and is now a special education teacher at Alamo Heights Independent School District. She worked at NECC for nearly seven years (from 2010 to 2016) as a residential counselor, a coordinator, then a program specialist. She earned her master’s degree in education from Simmons University while working at NECC and then her doctorate degree in education from Northeastern University.
“She brought her talents and deep skill set learned at NECC to Texas,” said McKenna. “She credits NECC for being able to teach her how to handle the most varied and tough student challenges, thereby improving her school district. As I’ve said before, the importance of NECC is far beyond Massachusetts. The teachers they’ve trained, and technology developed are deployed everywhere.”
As McKenna reached Florida, he took the opportunity to meet with a few NECC staff alumni, beginning with Lindsay Lloveras, PhD, BCBA-D, a clinical post-doctoral associate in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine and serves as a behavior analyst at the UF Health Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment in Gainesville, FL.
The University of Florida is the alma mater of many current NECC staff, so McKenna was paying homage to both alumni and current staff by stopping in Gainesville.
Lloveras worked at NECC for three years, where she earned her master’s degree in applied behavior analysis (ABA) through the Western New England University program before attending UF for her PhD in ABA from UF. She and McKenna discussed the importance of NECC, and more specifically, how they produce some of the best behavior analysts in the industry. “She shared with me that one can tell the quality of a trained behaviorist from an NECC program,” he said.
He added that while Lloveras was at NECC, her colleagues as well as other staff alumni really shaped her professionally and that inspired her to form a mentorship program, the Society for Young Behaviorists, at the University of Florida. She formed this in part to help replicate the support she was shown at NECC supporting and encouraging her to attend grad school and progress in her career.
“She is a remarkable person and a blessing to the field of autism,” McKenna said.
That day, McKenna was scheduled to meet with a second staff alumna, Marisa Burnham, who worked at NECC for three years before recently leaving to work as a BCBA in Lake City, FL. Unfortunately, there was a student emergency that forced Burnham to cancel her meeting but served as a reminder for McKenna about the dedication of teachers like Burnham.
“When their students are in a crisis, they drop whatever they are doing. They must,” he said, remembering a time when a young Michael was in his own crisis situation. “He had no means of communicating, but two of his teachers noticed that Michael was struggling and turning blue. They gave him the Heimlich and literally saved his life. When you trust your child with these teachers, you really are trusting them with everything. These teachers are truly heroes.”
In Orlando, McKenna had the opportunity to reconnect with one of Michael’s former teachers, Andrea Zuchora, MS, BCBA, who now works as part of a new fellowship committee teaching future BCBA-trained workers alongside another former NECC employee.
Zuchora worked at NECC for four years and earned her master’s degree while there. She worked with Michael as a teacher on Oak Street when she joined NECC in 2015, and he was actually part of her master’s thesis.
“Andrea mentioned a main quality of her NECC training was that she was encouraged to problem solve using both her creativity and intellect,” said McKenna of their conversation. “It was a delight to speak with her and get her perspective!”
Palm Beach Gardens, FL
“There was something poetic about having my last meeting of my journey and having it be with one of Michael’s first teachers at NECC,” said McKenna about his last stop on his drive across the United States. Arielle Stuhmer was one of Michael’s teachers for three years at his first residence on Saddle Hill Road and received her master’s degree in ABA through the Western New England University program while she was at NECC. She is now the director of operations at ABAfoundations, an organization that assists public schools with ABA.
Stuhmer invited McKenna to speak to her entire staff during his visit so that they could hear what the coast-to-coast mission uncovered. “These good folks put their hearts and souls into their students,” he shared. “They have the same concerns that I’ve heard all across the country about lack of funding and services for child and adult care. They also pointed out the need to have high professional standards that are enforced nationwide by all institutions and clinics.”
The NECC community extends its thanks to Mike and the entire McKenna family (Lori, Emily, Matthew, and Michael) for their dedication to raising funds and awareness for autism over the last 15 years, beginning with the MIKE Golf Classic.
They have had – and continue to have – an enormous impact on the lives of children with autism, and we are forever grateful for their support.