Congratulations to Our Non-Profit of the Month
By Nia Simone McLeod
Since its inception in 2012, the Richmond Autism Integration Network, otherwise known as RAIN, has been dedicated to bettering the lives of children with autism and their families. The organization gives children with autism a safe space to be their true selves while learning valuable life skills along the way. Throughout RAIN’s diverse selection of programming, their participants make friends, learn about the world around them, and just have fun.
Co-founder and program director Catherine Pall states that children with autism have busy lives, where it can be hard to fit fun in, “With therapies, doctor’s appointments, and school it is very structured to a point where the fun is not built in. One of the things that’s important in all of our programs is that we address social and life skills from a different approach.”
Pall continued, explaining that RAIN’s programs give children with autism opportunities to grow without being confined to a schedule, “They do not have the opportunity to even make friends or learn new things. They don’t have a place where they can just be themselves and be accepted for who that is without the confines of, ‘Well you need to do step one, two, three of this.’”
The Beginnings of RAIN
Pall began working in special education at the age of 18. One of her first jobs after high school was as an inclusion counselor at a camp that strived to include kids with special needs. While working at the camp, she fell in love with working in special education. At the time she was working on a Bachelor’s degree in history but spent her summers working with children who have special needs. By the time she began pursuing her masters, she chose to follow her passion and pursue a certification in special education.
Pall co-founded RAIN back in 2012 as an answer to the lack of programs for children with autism, “There was someone on a nonprofit board that was looking to start a camp for children with special needs. Her kids had autism and there were not any summer programs because after kids turn six or seven services phase out.”
The Programs That RAIN Offers
The first summer camp in 2012, entitled Camp Free2BeMe, catered to only eight students. Throughout the past seven years, the organization has grown tremendously and offers a wide variety of programs to the Richmond community. Camp Free2BeMe is a summer day camp that offers a fun way to learn social skills and explore recreational activities for children with autism who are 13 and up. Each week focuses on a particular social skill and teaches that skill through a variety of different ways including art, music, and group projects.
Throughout the school year, RAIN hosts Social Saturdays. This weekly program takes the social skills that students learn through the summer camp and stretches it out through the year. The activities offered include art, cooking, and game-based learning. RAIN is currently preparing for its yearly sensory-friendly prom event, which will have an Alice in Wonderland theme. Also, RAIN offers ACCESS (Adolescent Curriculum for Communication and Effective Social Skills) that caters specifically to middle school and high-school aged students. The program covers skills such as self-care, organization, respect, and relating to adults appropriately.
Throughout all of RAIN’s programs, the organization utilizes a peer-to-peer support system. The Indiana Resource Center for Autism has found that utilizing peer-to peer-support systems leads to many benefits for children with autism.
Many children have grown significantly through attending RAIN’s programs. When asked about a memorable moment working with the organization, Pall remembers a student that she watched grow up through RAIN’s programming, “He started in our second year when he was 13. He was angry at the world and lacked some of those social skills. I watched him graduate from high school last year. He’s gone through the program and learned the skills that he needed; now he is actually a peer buddy. He has matured enough that he can do that, and that is one of his favorite things to do.”
Pall believes that the connections that she has made with families throughout the Richmond community are incredibly important. “In Virginia, no one comes to you with a diagnosis and says ‘Here are all the services that are available.’ We always try to help them get whatever services they need. I love being able to see a family that’s totally lost within the system get what they need and be successful.”
What RAIN Needs From the Community
The Richmond Autism Integration Network is looking for the Richmond community to help them grow in a variety of different ways. “We are always looking for college students and high school students to be peer buddies. And being a small organization with a very limited budget, we’re always looking for donations and grants. The more that we have, the more that we’re able to do.”
Pall continued, discussing the catch-22 that nonprofits often deal with, “One of the pitfalls of nonprofit life is when you are a small nonprofit you need to grow. But in order to grow, you have to have money to grow.”
As for the future of RAIN, Pall wants the organization to spread more awareness throughout the community and become more of a resource to parents who have children with autism. “We want to build within the community so that autism becomes something that is not just autism. It can become more accepted and even normalized throughout the neurotypical community.”
Pall believes that everyone has the ability to make a difference within their community, “The autism community is a very tight-knit community and it is important that everyone supports each other. Anyone and everyone can make a difference. They just have to try. You can always take a look at what’s in front of you and make a change.”
Visit the Richmond Autism Integration Network’s website to learn more about the programs that they offer, how to volunteer, and how to donate. Additionally, you can follow them on Facebook to gain more information about their upcoming events.