Giant Steps and the Canopy Adult Day Program provide services for individuals with autism spectrum disorder

By Valerie Hardy

Based in Lisle, Giant Steps is a therapeutic day school certified to exclusively serve students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as their primary diagnosis. Since its inception in 1996, Giant Steps has upheld its commitment, as noted in its vision statement, to “providing individuals with autism spectrum disorders, and their families, superior educational and therapeutic services focused on improving the quality of daily life from early childhood through adulthood.” The Giant Steps day school offers elementary, junior high, and high school programming, with the central goal of enhancing students’ ability to interact, communicate, and develop both academic and daily living skills. Giant Steps takes an individualized and integrated approach, incorporating five key components: autism education, various therapies, recreational activities, life skills training, and other guidance and support for individuals and families touched by ASD, as well as training for schools and other community organizations that support individuals with autism.

The Rich Harvest Farms ponds provide a beautiful backdrop for leisure and learning

These programs at Giant Steps are available to students up to the age of 22; per federal law, public school students with special needs who have an individualized education program (IEP) are entitled to special education services until they reach the age of 22. However, that does not mean individuals’ need for educational and transitional supports ends when they turn 22 years old. Theresa McClear, a Hinsdale resident, described the challenges that face young adults with autism and their families after the students age out of programs like the ones at Giant Steps. McClear’s 23-year-old daughter with autism lives at home, and McClear explained the difficulty her family had trying to find work opportunities and adult day programs for individuals beyond age 22 that were appropriate for her daughter’s needs. Many programs “have long waiting lists,” she said, and “many parents have to stop working to support their adults with disabilities.” McClear praised Giant Steps for extending services to adults with ASD through the Canopy Adult Day Program held at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.

“Patterning and layering of skills is really important.”

Founded in 2012, the Canopy program was largely possible thanks to the donation of space at the world-renowned Rich Harvest Farms golf course and estate courtesy of the property’s owner, Jerry Rich. Dr. Sylvia Smith, Giant Steps Executive Director, expressed deep gratitude for Rich’s generosity. “I still have a hard time believing he is so selfless,” Smith said. “A remarkable thing about Jerry is that he doesn’t have anyone in his family that has special needs or autism. He is just doing it because he sees a need.” Rich, a self-made entrepreneur who developed an integrated computer system for Wall Street traders, is a golf enthusiast. When he initially learned about the adult day program through Giant Steps and that its participants were learning golf skills on asphalt, he wondered why. When he met some of the participants, “he just kind of fell in love with [them, and wanted them to have greater access to natural space for golf and other activities],” Smith said. Most programs for adults with autism are in “industrial areas with very little green space around,” Smith said.

Canopy participants and staff enjoy fishing on the rich Harvest farms property

“What Jerry has given us is green space.” Not only did Rich donate land and building space for the Canopy program’s use, but he also donated four golf carts. “Our guys would do anything to ride in those golf carts,” Smith said about the joy the Canopy participants get from riding in the carts. The Canopy program affords adults with autism a vast variety of leisure and occupational experiences on the Rich Harvest Farms grounds. One of the most notable elements of the program is participants’ access to horses at the Christine’s Dream Equine Center, an equine therapy program offered through Giant Steps in partnership with Rich Harvest Farms. Through this program, participants engage in a variety of activities appropriate for their interests and readiness. They can learn grooming and other non-riding horsemanship skills, horseback riding, and other targeted educational and vocational skills at the Equine Center. Canopy participants also spend time in the community – for example, going to eateries and learning to order from the menu – in order to continue cultivating their life skills. Smith articulated the importance of accessible programming for adults with ASD in order to avoid gaps in service.

“Patterning and layering of skills is really important,” Smith said. “Without reinforcement, their learning regresses rapidly.” The Canopy program serves participants ranging in age from 22 to 37. “We do not take anyone 8-10 years older than our oldest participant,” Smith said, adding that after their time in programs like Canopy, many individuals with ASD “will go into a residential program, because as they age, their parents are aging too.” Currently, the Canopy program can only support 60 individuals. “Because the need is so great, and the waiting list is long, Canopy is raising money to build an activities center that will help them grow their Adult Day Program with the capacity of servicing 150 adults per day,” McClear said. The Canopy Capital Campaign is in place to raise funds for a new and expanded program. The fundraising goal is approximately $7 million. To help with the Canopy program’s fundraising efforts and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Giant Steps organization, the Silver Jubilee Gala is being held on April 22 at 6 p.m. at the Embassy Suites in Naperville, “just a skip and a hop from our school,” Smith said. At the Gala, guests will be able to take pictures in front of a car from Rich’s extensive collection.

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A quick Q & A with Canopy program benefactor Jerry Rich

Hinsdale Magazine: How did you come to connect with Giant Steps and the Canopy Adult Service Program?

Jerry Rich: I connected with Giant Steps on the recommendation of two longstanding Members at the golf course I own, Rich Harvest Farms. They worked for Navistar, whose worldwide headquarters is located very close to Giant Steps. Through this connection, I learned that there were an incredible number of individuals living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who were going to age out of state and federal support. As soon as they turned 22, they often had nowhere to go except back home, where they would lose the social, vocational, and personal skills they developed at places like Giant Steps.

I heard of Giant Steps’ plan to combat such an issue in the form of their Canopy Adult Services Program, but, at the time, they didn’t have a dedicated space for it. I own 1,820 acres out in Sugar Grove though, so I was more than happy to offer it up for the advancement and expansion of Canopy. Currently, they utilize the building I own at 264 S. Main St. in Sugar Grove. In the future though, I have put aside land behind St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Sugar Grove for Giant Steps to build an ASD-specific community to serve the long-term needs of adults impacted by autism.

Hinsdale Magazine: Why was it important to you to support this program and its participants?

Jerry Rich: When I was just 10 years old, I sought work at a local golf course where I met a man who welcomed me onto the course and taught me about caddying. This man could have easily dismissed me, but instead gave me a pull cart and a chance to learn the game. That day, I made $1.10 in tip money, but, more importantly, I fell in love with golf, fueling a life-long passion for the sport. I credit that man with changing the entire course of my life. I see my partnership with Giant Steps as offering these individuals living with ASD the same opportunity I was given in my youth — a chance to grow and thrive.

*Photos by provided by MyGiantSteps