My oldest son Jack is 22 and has profound autism. I am his voice and I type these words on his behalf. Although he is a fantastic typist — and addicted to his computer and Kindle — he is a young man of little conversation and the need to communicate.
Mesa became our home in June 2019 as he was about to age out of the New York school system and special needs services ceased. So the five of us packed up our lives and started over here in Arizona, where services for special needs adults are among the best in the country. In 2020, Mesa was declared the first Autism Certified City in America.
I originally enrolled Jack in a Mesa public high school while state services were being secured, and then, of course, COVID-19 hit and everything came to a crashing standstill. While he was in school, he continued to study the norm of math and grammar, but I knew something was missing. He couldn’t understand the concept of money or how to make a simple meal. How was he going to live once I am gone? How will he care for himself or maintain a job? These are questions that haunt every special needs mom at 3 a.m. I was working with him one day when I felt very deeply the need to do something to help Jack and others like him, and as a mother, educator and autism advocate, I was just waiting for the time to be right.
In 2021, I co-founded The Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning along with my friend and colleague, Andrea McHattan, a mother of seven, consultant and life-skills coach.
I interviewed and hired Andrea to help implement a life skills education for Jack. We worked as a team and bonded over a common goal — helping Jack gain independence and confidence at the highest level possible. Many hours of curriculum curation and design led us to realize the great need Arizona Families have for our combined skill set, passions and talents.
The primary focus of The Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning is to fund scholarships for The Lifelab Institute, which will have a flagship location in Mesa.
The TLI is unique. Designed to provide a positive, hands-on/goal-oriented approach to teaching essential life and social skills in a safe, nurturing simulated home environment. Our program is modeled to address real life and social skills needed to foster confidence and eventual self-reliance and independence. We are also committed to bring opportunities for social connections to our neighborhood and the entire east valley. A harvest dance, winter ball. pizza parties, movie nights, game nights, and craft making are just a few opportunities we have on the calendar so far.
Jack is very creative and loves to share his love of prayer with the world. A few years ago he was very interested in learning how to say the rosary but sometimes had difficulty holding the rosary beads and counting on them because they were so small and his hands remain weak. The idea came to me that Jack could hand-make sturdy beads to assist those who may benefit from using larger beads to pray with. He rolls each bead by hand, paints them and later strings them on heavy twine. He says, “First you make ‘em, then you bake ‘em, then you paint ‘em, then you string ‘em, then you pray.” Please visit “Jack’s Beads of Joy” shop on Etsy. Proceeds from the sales will directly fund The Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning.
For more information — and to find out how you can make a difference — call Laura Sullivan at 917-364-4081. Follow the Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life & Learning on Facebook @thejslaz and the The Lifelab Institute @T.L.L.I.AZ.
Editor’s note: Laura Sullivan, co-founder of The Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning, lives in east Mesa with her husband, Sean, and two teenage boys, Joseph and Gerry Michael.