WHEELING - Treating autism is like a race against time - and it's a race 4-year-old Baylee Jones has a much better chance of winning.
Baylee is one of more than 3,000 children in West Virginia diagnosed with the disorder. She receives about 35 hours of intensive, one-on-one therapy each week at the Augusta Levy Learning Center in North Wheeling.
Early intervention for an autistic child often can mean the difference between a chance to succeed at the same level as his or her peers or potential reliance on lifetime care - but fewer than 2 percent of autistic children in West Virginia receive the type of therapy the center provides.
Photo by Ian Hicks
Augusta Levy Learning Center therapist Allison West holds 4-year-old Baylee Jones as classmate Sean Fahey, 3, plays in the ball pit. Joining them are center Executive Director Kathy Shapell and Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Race Director R. “Scat” Scatterday.
To help Augusta Levy continue fighting the impact of autism, proceeds from the 37th annual Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic Run and Walk, set for Saturday, May 25, will benefit the North Wheeling center as it seeks to increase both awareness of autism and - eventually, its staff hopes - the number of children they can welcome into the program at any one time.
Fifteen children receive therapy at Augusta Levy from a team of 16 therapists trained in the applied behavior analysis approach, which takes simple behaviors and breaks them down into small steps.
"A big part of what we do is teaching children how to learn. They require a very systematic, intensive way of learning," center Executive Director Kathy Shapell said.
The lengths to which families will go to provide their child the opportunity to receive such therapy is a testament to the work done at Augusta Levy. With Baylee's father, Dusty Jones, away while serving in the military, Lori Jones packed the family up and moved them from southern West Virginia to the Wheeling area so Baylee could attend the center.
"We've had to make a lot of sacrifices, but thanks to the great therapists at Augusta Levy, it has all been worth it," Lori Jones said. "Baylee's progress in the past year has been remarkable, and we are so grateful to the center for everything they do for her."
Like many of Augusta Levy's students, Baylee was completely non-verbal when she arrived at the center. While she still has plenty of progress to make, Shapell said, Baylee is now singing songs and having conversations with her family for the first time.
Though researchers have been unable to pinpoint a specific cause or trigger for the disorder, autism - which affects brain development, social interaction, communication and behavior - is diagnosed in an estimated one in 88 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Augusta Levy receives minimal government support and relies heavily on private donations and its own fundraising efforts to meet its expenses.
With a limited budget, 15 is the maximum number of students the center can accept at a time, with more than 100 on a waiting list that Shapell said grows longer every week.
"We are in need of office supplies, teaching supplies, paper products," Shapell said. "When we don't have to spend money on those things, we can put all of the money that we do raise toward direct services."
Ogden Half Marathon Race Director R. "Scat" Scatterday is delighted to have the race partner with Augusta Levy this year. He recalls the transformation of one of his relatives, Nathan Whitesell, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 15 months.
"He's a normal 3-year-old kid right now. ... Their program, their talents, their staff were absolutely lifesavers," Scatterday said. "Those people can't be paid enough."
Shapell noted several members of the center's staff are planning to participate in the various race events and said she's extremely grateful for the race's support.
Early registration, available online by visiting www.ogdenhalfmarathonclassic.com, is open through May 13, and allows registrants to avoid paying an additional $10 fee to register. Scatterday stressed that signing up means you're not just entering a race but helping to change children's lives.
Weekend events surrounding the Ogden race kick off May 24 with the Veterans Torch Relay at 4 p.m. honoring the nation's armed forces, both past and present. The relay begins in Elm Grove and covers the last 6 miles of the Half Marathon course.
Following a brief ceremony at the conclusion of the relay, the evening's festivities continue with the Ogden Tiny Tot Trot at 6:45 p.m. for children 5 years old and younger beneath the WesBanco Arena skywalk. At 7:15 p.m., the non-competitive, mile-long Ogden Fun Run for ages 12 and younger will be held, followed by the Ogden Mile at 7:30 p.m., with both events stepping off from the top of Wheeling Hill.
The action gets back under way May 25 with the Half Marathon Walk at 7:30 a.m., the Half Marathon Run and Run Relay at 8 a.m. and the 5K Run/Walk for Health at 8:15 a.m. Announcement of race results will take place at 11:30 a.m. at the Heritage Port Amphitheater.