Goal: Fulfill charity’s dreams

Matt Lopas

Goal: Fulfill charity’s dreams

By Samantha Nelson

Have Dreams Program Director Kristina Johnsen said she’s had two truly electric moments in her life. The first was seeing the Beatles in concert. The second came last fall when she heard that Have Dreams: Helping Autistic Voices Emerge had been chosen as the primary beneficiary for this year’s Dance Marathon.

“It was like a tidal wave had come over the place,” Johnsen said. “It was incredible.”

DM begins at 6 p.m. tonight with students dancing until midnight Sunday in the Louis Room at Norris University Center. Along with students dancing to raise money, student volunteers will buddy up with children from the charity as they make presentations and participate in Saturday’s Kids Fair.

“The children are all so excited about Dance Marathon,” Johnsen said. “A couple of them have been preparing speeches. It’s been more than I ever could have hoped for.”

Have Dreams was founded in 1996 by a group of parents and educators who wanted to improve the quality of life for children with autism and their families through training and teaching programs. More than 40 families currently participate in Have Dreams and more are on the waiting list.

These families pay only a modest portion of the program’s costs. Have Dreams receives no public funding and depends on grants and donations from individuals, businesses and community groups for three-quarters of its funds. Johnsen said Have Dreams plans to use the money from DM to improve and expand their administrative and support staff, help families on their waiting list with teacher training programs and expand their facilities.

In recent years DM has raised more than $400,000 in donations annually.

DM’s new requirement that participants do three hours of community service has increased the number of volunteers at Have Dreams.

A staff of professional special education teachers and student volunteers at Have Dreams work with children after school and on weekends. They help with a variety of programs, including music therapy, language classes, instructional swimming and social skills classes. They also reach out to the families, providing parent workshops, sibling support and customized home and school programming.

“Things that keep kids from having the fullest educational experience they can is a lack of independence and behavior,” Johnsen said. “We just give them an environment where they can play and make dinner and go to the grocery store. We take our kids on train rides and keep expanding on those experiences until we can link up on a program with adults that they can join.”

She also is excited about the educational opportunity the event offers.

“Being able to reach so many young people and tell them about autism so that they could go out in the world with a better understanding and perhaps be researchers or educators who would help people with autism was a draw for us, more than the money,” Johnsen said. “You can always raise more money, but to have the opportunity to tell the community at large more about autism was priceless to us.”

DM Executive Co-Chairman Justin Ballheim said he also found the ability to educate students about the issue they were raising funds for especially exciting. “Very few people really understand autism,” said Ballheim, a Medill senior. “We thought it was a good opportunity for DM to raise awareness about something and have a charity where students could really see where their money is going.”