In order to understand the fruits of someone’s life, you must first examine the tree and the roots from which it grew. In Part I, we met Terri Matthews, a business executive, humanitarian, TV Personality and former teen parent. We learned about who she is and how one of the greatest struggles of her life unfolded. In Part II, we’re going to find out how Terri took her struggle and used it as the foundation for a new life, a new dream, and long-awaited calling.
Ladies and Gentleman, this is…
Shortly after relocating to Pennsylvania, native-Californian Terri Matthews began to realize the uphill battle that she faced as the mother of an autistic son.
“Enrolling my son into the school system was the worst process I’ve ever seen in my life. EVER,” she says with an unmistakable hint of frustration and disgust, “there were schools in my neighbor that technically my son should be able to go to but [couldn’t] because there’s no Autistic support classes; people have little or no education [on Autism]; or they don’t have the resources. So it took calling all the politicians to get the school district to [make a] move.”
Terri readily admits that her strategic use of her voice and network enabled her to get support that most aren’t able to readily access. Unsurprisingly, those two things would propel her to finally answering her “calling”.
“I have to be honest, I think in my walk I was very disobedient [in acting on my calling] not because I was in denial…I think it’s something that a mother goes through when your child is diagnosed with anything; there’s always that shock factor,” she explains.
After the smoke and debris of her shock factor settled, the question still remained heavy on her heart: what happens to the average family affected by the complexities and devastation of Autism?
The answer had become very clear to Terri: The average family is set up for failure instead of success.
It was time to be obedient and answer her calling.
In 2009, Terri co-founded Jaden’s Voice, a non-profit foundation and “welcoming community that works to enhance the lives of children diagnosed with autism and their families”. Jaden’s Voice was created to provide a bridge to happiness and wholeness for children, families and communities through innovative programs, autism education and support for families.
“The area where Jaden’s Voice is focused is the underserved community and the underserved community, unfortunately, happens to be African-Americans, Latinos and Asians. In Pennsylvania alone the African-American child is diagnosed 18 months behind white children,” she says bluntly, “that’s unfortunate; part of [the reason for that] that is education, resources, lack of knowledge of what autism is, and not having the ability to get the same help and services that are actually free and available for kids to get.”
Currently, Terri says that Jaden’s Voice is “just helping families”.
Don’t let her humbleness fool you: Jaden’s Voice has continued to gain momentum each year of its existence. This year, in an effort to raise awareness about Autism, the foundation has held events such as the celebrity soft ball game at the Camden River Sharks Stadium that pit athlete’s Rasheed Wallace against Donovan McNabb; and just a little over a month later, Jaden’s Voice was also selected as the featured non-profit for the popular 17 Days of Fashion extravaganza here in Philly. Terri and her team are now working to further fuel the momentum by focusing their efforts on flushing out the feasibility model for potential sponsors and investors, and commissioning to have a building constructed.
“We’re basically a conduit right now to get [families] the help that they need. We’re in the process of hiring our own payroll specialists, case managers, occupational therapists—we already have special education coordinators, clinical psychologists and administrative assistance,” she says.
“Our main lead is Dr. Daniel Lee, he’s an awesome, outstanding African-American who recently wrote a book called Do What You’re Built For. He’s a clinical psychologist so some days it’s about Jaden’s Voice and some days it’s about improvement of Terri Matthews,” she says as she bursts out in laughter.
Terri’s demeanor shifts slightly—almost fluidly—as if she’s become accustomed to being ready to advocate and spread the word at the drop of a dime. Her back straightens signifying to me that she’s gone from Terri Matthews the woman and mother, to Terri Matthews the advocate and co-founder.
“Upon intake you would be assigned a clinical psychologist and a case manager, immediately. When you come in, we welcome you. We have two parts to our program: the Jaden’s Care Program, which really focuses on the Autistic child and all of their needs, and then the Jaden’s Family Program. So, let’s go to Jaden’s Care,” she says.
We’re in a coffee shop but I feel like we’re a board meeting or presentation of some sort; it’s almost as if there’s a virtual tour or PowerPoint presentation taking place. Now, I’m getting a glimpse of Terri Matthews the corporate America businesswoman. Slowly but surely it’s becoming clear why this is her calling.
“What we do is identify what the child is missing–what they need: have they been officially diagnosed? Have they had their teeth cleaned and hair cut [since we know those are sometimes tough things to accomplish with autistic children]? All of this and more,” she explains.
Jaden’s Voice partners with community dentists and barbers to provide specialized services to their clients. The foundation trains the business owners and their staff, and once the training is completed, a branded emblem is placed in their business window. When a family in need of dental services comes forward, the child is given a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a “Jaden’s Voice Buddy Dollar” which ensures the x-rays and cleanings during the first visit are free. The JV Buddy Dollar can also be taken to the barbershop or hair salon for a one-time free haircut.
“No longer do you have to be embarrassed and say, ‘my child’s autistic so you can’t do this…’. We’ve trained the staff to have sensitivity and compassion towards the kid and the parent. They know they can’t rush, push and pull—they have to be sensitive to sound and all of that. Now, [clients] can go wherever [they] want to go but we are partnering with people in the community,” she explains, “it’s a double deal for us because not only are we helping our parents that are newly diagnosed, we’re also educating the community.”
So we’ve covered the child and the community, but what about the family?
“We know that if the parent is not healthy then the kid is not healthy. In the underserved community we’re dealing with a lot more than the average parent. [Through the Jaden’s Family arm of programming] we want to be able to help them wholeheartedly,” she says.
The compassion and poise in her voice speaks to the young mom in me. I don’t have an autistic child but I do know what it’s like to be underserved and be buried under a mountain of stress as a single-parent. My heart aches some as I think about the parents of the 1 in 88 children who are affected by Autism. According to the leading Autism science and advocacy organization, Autism Speaks, Autism costs a family $60,000 a year on average.
I know people who are struggling to MAKE $60,000 in a year—and many of them have college degrees. With the clients that Jaden’s Voice services, we’re talking about underserved families—many of whom don’t have college degrees and in a lot of cases, high school diplomas.
That’s where Terri saw an opportunity to get a little creative. Jaden’s Voice uses another form of the “buddy system”.
“We typically try to pair the parents up with another person who’s been through the ropes—they’re a little more experienced, they’ve been in the system a little longer, they know who to call, etc. We then send them—which is required—to at least have one psychological visit because I think all of us need somebody, sometimes, to talk to; we have to have those checks and balances,” she explains, “then it’s optional for them to join our events area, become a parent and support leader, and continue with the ongoing psychological support.”
In addition to those services for parents, they also provide support for the siblings of Autistic children through dynamic programming, and they also provide training services that reward families with an iPad. That in itself gives families to access something that many of us take for granted: the internet.
I look across the table at this woman who truly possesses much more than what meets the eye. The entire time that we’ve been chatting, I’ve been consistently drawn in by her unapologetic bluntness about her life that she manages to deliver with such…taste.
It makes the bitterness of the realities the she addresses somehow sweet and digestible to the mental palette.
I know she’s touched on it before, but I have to ask again—I have to dig a little deeper: how much has this struggle changed you?
“I haven’t had this perfect, easy life although I’m educated, well-polished and rub elbows with who’s-who’s; everything has been God-given, I didn’t ask for this position. When Jaden was diagnosed, I had many a pity moment—but I think any parent would have. God put it in my heart that there is a reason why He gave me this child and I know the scripture says God gives you no more than you can bare. So when I thought that I was strong, I realized that I wasn’t. When I thought I knew love, I understood that I didn’t. I had no clue,” she says with tears in her eyes.
“That’s where Jaden’s Voice even came about–my [struggle said to me]: I’m vocal enough, I’m strong enough and I know the breakdowns that I’m going through. I’m a strong business, very ambitious, and driven woman, right? And I know what I’m feeling inside.
SO what about the people who don’t have the resources? What about the people who don’t have the voice? What about the people who don’t have the right relationships? WHAT ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE?
That’s what God was telling me: I’m allowing you to navigate these waters for a reason because now you’re not sitting in a place where you had the resources and didn’t have to go through the struggle—you still had to.
I’ve had the resources and still had to go through everything that they went through and unfortunately, I’ve had to go through a divorce [in the process] too.
So, I’ve been a single mom with Jaden; I’ve been a corporate mom with a Jaden; I’ve been a married mom with Jaden—I’ve been everything but homeless with Jaden. And we’re not claiming that. The thing is: its changed me. I see the world so differently. The people that I thought had power and were courageous—they’re not. These mothers are; every mother who has to wake up and be a mom in general is something, but when you have to wake up and be a mom and know that you have to face a world with a child who has disabilities that are out of your control…that’s powerful, that’s courageous. And the whole household sacrifices—which is why we want father’s involved too because boys are more often diagnosed than girl. So yes, this has changed me. [My God] It’s changed me.”
T-shirts for kids and adults are available through Impact Boutique located at 644 South St. here in Philadelphia, PA. You can dial (267) 455-0112 to reach Impact Boutique or click here to be directed to JadensVoice.org where you can contact them with your inquiries.
“We thought this was a great opportunity for communities. We’re hoping that every t-shirt we put on somebody’s body gives us the opportunity to reach the community and with the money that we receive, 100% of profits go to Jaden’s Voice funding and programming.
– Sincerely Syreeta