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‘None of us saw this coming’; parents rally to save autism program in Kelowna

Click to play video: '“I thought it was a joke. I can’t see something so important would be closed”: parents rally and plead for help saving Autism program in Kelowna' “I thought it was a joke. I can’t see something so important would be closed”: parents rally and plead for help saving Autism program in Kelowna
“I thought it was a joke. I can’t see something so important would be closed”: parents rally and plead for help saving Autism program in Kelowna – Nov 26, 2019

About three dozen people, mostly parents of children on the autism spectrum, gathered in front of the constituency office of Kelowna Liberal MLA Steve Thomson on Tuesday morning.

They’re hoping that their concerned voices will be heard in Victoria as they try and save a program they call life-changing for their children.

“I’m angry and I’m very upset and worried and scared for my children,” said Jeanie Thibert, who has three children all on the Autism spectrum.

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READ MORE: Children’s development centre in Kelowna says its autism program is closing due to funding pressures

Thibert’s have all benefited from the autism program offered at the Starbright Children’s Development Centre.

But last week, the centre announced that due to funding pressures, the nearly 10-year-old autism program will be cut in December.

The decision has left more than 40 families in limbo and scrambling to find alternatives.

“None of us saw this coming,” Thibert told Global News. “At first I thought it was a joke because I can’t see something so important would be closed.”

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Tanji Hennessey also attended the rally.

She said the program made a huge difference for her son Issiah, who is non-verbal.

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“When you have a non-verbal (child), you can’t, you don’t know, when you bring him with one person, how his day really went, you can’t trust it,” said Hennessey.

“When I brought him there, I actually could feel that he was safe, he was loved and it was like a school before school started, so it was a really good feeling.”

While Issiah has completed the program, Hennessey said she feels for families being impacted by the program cut.

“I’m sad for the people who come after us, that don’t get to have that,” she said.

Soyoun Giesbrecht’s four-year-old son, Henry, attends the autism program.

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She said at the rally that he’s made tremendous strides in the short four months he’s been enrolled in the program.

“He didn’t talk before but in that four-month period he changed so much.” Giesbrecht said. “Now he’s non-stop talking.”

READ MORE: ‘Sensory-friendly’ Santa helps children with autism ease into the holidays

Giesbrecht expressed concern about having to find another option for her son given the fact many children with Autism don’t do well with change.

“It’s not easy for us to find and change a whole new team for him,” she said. “It’s hard for them to change.”

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Barber cuts hair outside after boy with autism gets overwhelmed – Oct 17, 2019

Parents said there are other options in the community, but none seem to mirror the comprehensive program offered at Starbright, where therapists and specialists are all under one roof.

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“You’re going to have to hire a one-on-one aide and that just doesn’t work because the kid needs a school environment . . . before they start school or they’re never going to learn structure,” Hennessey said.

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Woman says New Brunswick social development system is broken – Nov 19, 2019

The MLA wasn’t at his constituency office at the time of the rally; he was in Victoria.

Thomson told Global News over the phone shortly after the rally that he’s aware of the situation with the autism program at Starbright, and that he plans on bringing those concerns to the minister responsible.

While Thompson is not in the governing party, parents said they hope he can convey the message that more government funding is needed to keep the program running.

The autism program’s last scheduled day will be December 20.

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