Sometimes the flame of inspiration needs a little rekindling. In our day-to-day lives, fast paced and full, there is often no time to take a pause and reflect upon where we are and where we are going: we just go! But then, unexpectedly a moment happens, and life gives us a pause that reaffirms that the road we are traveling on is the right one or the realization that we need to find another way. If we listen to life and pay attention to these miraculous moments they can be validating.
In 2002, The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation awarded its first grants to programs for adolescents and adults with autism. We are the only not-for-profit 501(c) (3) organization in the United States to specifically focus our grant giving on residential, recreational, vocational, educational and family programs that provide opportunities for adults with autism to participate in community life. Since its inception, the all-volunteer-run, Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation has awarded grants to role model programs throughout the United States that honor the individuality of each person throughout adulthood. Our residential programs are on farmsteads, in group homes, in assisted living apartments, and on campuses in both urban and suburban settings. Our recreational programs encompass all kinds of pursuits ranging from camping, art, music, theater, swimming and horseback riding to dog training, travel, and health and wellness activities. The foundation has enabled service providers to develop transitional programs in schools and adult day programs and has provided suitable, stimulating, and sustainable opportunities for adults to work at jobs in the community. We have funded educational materials such as the first job manual for volunteer and supportive employment for adults, a DVD series on the challenges facing adults with autism, and a manual that guides faith communities on ways that they can include individuals with autism in their congregations. The foundation is committed to creating family wellness and our grantees have included family respite adventures, family entertainment, and support of a range of symposiums including medical, legal, and financial issues that affect their lives and the lives of their adult children with autism. Because of The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation’s expertise in developing, identifying, supporting, and supervising exemplary programs, we have become a leading advocacy organization for adults with autism and their families on the state and national levels.
During the past six years I have been constantly amazed by the incredible individuals with autism and their families whom I have met in my travels throughout the country. There is so much strength and talent in the autism community and I feel privileged by virtue of my role as Executive Director of The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation that they have shared their lives with me. I am always guided by the vision I had for my own son Danny, in whose memory the foundation is named; I wanted him to be respected for who he was and for him to have every chance to achieve his personal best. This mission, inspired by Danny, is my life’s passion and yet as in all of our lives, I sometimes need a sign of inspiration.
Such a moment happened recently. The story begins when a dear friend named Paul, who is probably one of the most articulate and knowledgeable people I know regarding theater, film and television history, mentioned to me that he wanted to take a theater course but could not find an age appropriate one for adults over 21-year-old who have Asperger’s Syndrome. Paul had tried taking theater classes when he was in his twenties but had not had good experiences, mostly because he felt uncomfortable in the “typical” theater groups where people did not relate to him and he felt that he could not express himself comfortably and fully. At 34 years old, he wanted to be among like-minded peers who face similar challenges in their own lives and who love the theater as much as he does. I decided to contact a local equity theater company called The Garage Theater located near where Paul lives in Bergen County, New Jersey. Michael Bias, the theater company’s director was engaged with the idea of starting a theater program for adults over age 21 with an autism spectrum disorder, and Paul and I were thrilled. I then contacted Madeleine Goldfarb, Director of Outreach for the Autism Center of New Jersey Medical School—a true impresario of autism programming—who I knew had expertise in running theater programs for individuals with autism and had successfully done so at Montclair State University. Thus, the team was established and this pioneering theater program for adults 21 and older was launched. Paul guided every aspect of the program’s development so that it not only addresses his own interests in the theater but also provides the participants with the chance to make new friends.
I had mentioned the theater program to the mom of a young man I know named Steven who had looked out for my son Danny as kind of a mentor and big brother when they were in school together. Steven has grown into such a terrific person and is a talented musician and poet who also loves the theater. I thought Steven might be interested in this newly formed theater group and indeed he was.
The first meeting of the group of 15 men and women arrived and I went to welcome the participants and their families. When Steven arrived with his dad my heart lifted. I hadn’t seen him in several years and he had matured from the caring, adorable 11-year-old I remembered into a handsome and articulate man of 21 who still possessed the same endearing, angelic quality that drew him to be Danny’s protector and friend. Then Paul arrived, filled with enthusiasm and pride for the program he inspired and created. Standing on the sideline, watching the group, the thought came to me to introduce these two men whom I adored. Truly, I never saw anything like it; it was as if lightening had struck. Steven and Paul immediately started up a conversation that lasted for over an hour, as if they had always been best friends.
As I drove home that afternoon my face was soaked with tears of joy. Because of Danny and The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation, the opportunity for me to meet Paul and develop the theater program arose. And now, even more importantly, through this program, I could give Steven the gift of friendship that he had given to Danny so many years ago. There could be no better affirmation that I am traveling on the road that is my destiny.
Linda Walder Fiddle is the Founder and Executive Director of The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation. She is a member of the New Jersey Adults with Autism Task Force, a member of the board of trustees of COSAC, the Autism Center of NJMS and the recipient of numerous community service awards including the Ann Klein Advocate Award that she will receive on October 23, 2008 from the Community Health Law Project. For more information on The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation visit www.djfiddlefoundation.org.