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Empowering kids: Autism services grow under Perham couple's guidance

Fergus Falls Daily Journal - 11/7/2017

Nov. 07--PERHAM -- When Kim Nelson's grandson was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, she was told to do as much as she could to help him. But Kim could find no resources in her community until she met Christi Stoll, who shared similar struggles and a dream of opening an autism center.

Kim and Kenny Nelson are the initial founders of the Empowering Kids Perham, a nonprofit organization with the goal to ensure happy, successful futures for every child in their community.

Their goal is to "empower children, families and the community by providing support and resources so that all children, with autism or other special needs, will live a life of hope, happiness, dignity and purpose."

Kim met Stoll years ago in a support group where they shared their stories and eventually agreed to start their own autism center. Stoll has a son diagnosed with ADHD.

"We both had the same points we wanted to focus on: the kids' strengths, what they already excel at, what makes them happy and what they can contribute to society," said Kim in a letter. "We wanted to help them and their families. Autism can be difficult and exhausting, and as hard as families may try to do their best, they can be left feeling a sense of failure. These kids can be so amazing, and we want to let them find ways to shine."

Stoll thought starting a center was such a great idea, because despite the services that the school district does provide, options for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum are limited.

"We have the school district with services in the school, but the kids need more and right now we have an autism center in Fargo and one in Minneapolis and not a whole lot in between," Stoll said.

Empowering Kids Perham first started 1 1/2 years ago, according to Stoll, officer manager of the organization. She is involved in the Boys and Girls Club in Perham and when they needed a place to start the program, the club allowed Empowering Kids Perham to start underneath them. Under the Boys and Girls Club, Empowering Kids Perham was only able to service children 5 -18 years old. However, they recently applied to be a 501c3 nonprofit and will be able to expand the range of their services.

"Now we can do under five years of age with our new nonprofit with early intervention services as a part of it and can help kids over 18 years old as well, because a lot of kids on the autism spectrum are still in school up to 21 years old and need services after that as well," Stoll said.

Not only is Empowering Kids Perham providing accessible services for autistic and other special needs children, but they are making it affordable. Although their services are not covered by insurance, they are affordable according to Stoll and scholarships are available for families who need it.

Services that Empowering Kids Perham provides

So what kinds of services does this nonprofit organization provide that benefit autistic and other special needs children? According to Amy Zamzo, executive director, occupational therapist and autism specialist, early intervention services are one of the most important.

"Early intervention for children on the autism spectrum is an opportunity for success," Zamzo said. "When you reach them when they're little it's important and so we are excited to offer services for that."

The early intervention program is centered around children ages 2 1/2 -4 1/2 years old. Zamzo said that lately, children at that age are spending less time exploring environments, observing others and engaging in pretend free-play, and more time staring at screens and technology. As a result, kids on the autistic spectrum are not able to learn foundational skills of attending, listening, following directions and self-regulation to be successful in classrooms. So this early intervention program focuses on interactive playing skills.

Another area in which Empowering Kids Perham is focusing is developing social skills. According to Zamzo, one main feature of autism spectrum disorder is lack of eye contact and not looking at people's faces and body language to gather information. Zamzo and Empowering Kids Perham are trying to teach kids on the autism spectrum to gather information on people with their eyes.

"This program helps kids learn that whenever there is another person, they are always thinking about you and you should be thinking about them and tune into what they are doing, saying and look like. This gives the kids information to behaviorally respond appropriately," Zamzo said.

As of now, the social skills program is offered to kids in grades kindergarten through eight.

Empowering Kids Program also recognizes that all children have gifts and talents that need to be nurtured. They help highlight those talents through their therapeutic recreation by providing community activities and social events.

"Right now we don't have a lot of technology based types of extracurricular activities. What kids are drawn to is tech coding, Legos engineering and art and it's not in the community," Stoll said.

Empowering Kids Perham hopes bringing social activities surrounding these talents and others can help kids use that skill to socialize and be successful in college and possibly a future career.

Activities that Empowering Kids is offering right now include a mystical card game group and a Minecraft coding camp on Dec. 2. There are also Out-n-About activities for which kids can sign up. For instance, this past summer Empowering Kids Perham had a beach day at a camp in town where kids swam, roasted marshmallows and hung out with each other.

Lastly, Empowering Kids Perham is reaching out to the families of autistic children, offering in-home support and classes to further educate the community on autism. The program is also committed to following children into their adult lives, hoping to provide independent living services.

"These kids deserve so much and they have hidden talents we want to try to find. We want them to be happy, because everyone deserves that: to grow up, have jobs and friends and a fulfilling life," Stoll said.

Empowering Kids Perham is located at 316 Sixth Ave. SW, Perham. For more information go to or contact them at 218-298-4697.


(c)2017 the Fergus Falls Daily Journal (Fergus Falls, Minn.)

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