THE PLAYERS donates $10,000 to the Jacksonville School for Autism as part of the annual Red Coat Rideout


On the stretch of I-95 between Philips Highway and Baymeadows Road in Jacksonville, South Florida, drivers angle to get from point A to point B in minimal time. Between uphill businesses in the area and passing motorists, however, tensions are mounting as routine congestion increases.

Parallel to this stretch of freeway, just to the east, beyond a dividing line of trees, is the Gramercy Woods Business Park, a mighty place where there is neither rainfall nor tensions. Thanks to the passion and determination of Michelle and Mark Dunham, there’s no slowing down at the Jacksonville School for Autism either. Every passing second brings accomplishments, and it is those accomplishments that spark both hope and anticipation.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Florida, Michelle worked in banking, including serving as vice president of public relations. It was in this role that she first experienced community charities. In 1992, she began what would become a long career in the pharmaceutical field. Very early in this field, she connected with adults and children facing mental and developmental disorders, including autism.

In 1998, Michelle and Mark welcomed their son, Nicholas, into the world. In February 2000, Nicholas was diagnosed with autism.

At the time of their son’s diagnosis, autism affected only one in 250 children. This statistic led to the Dunhams’ struggle for services. The harsh reality of limited resources prompted Michelle to create something of her own for her son, combining aspects of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, speech therapy, motor skills training, sensory integration therapy and play and peer socialization.

Today, autism affects one in 44 children.

“When Nick was diagnosed, there was very little support in our community,” Michelle said. “Of the programs that existed, many focused on a single educational modality. I had the opportunity to put Nick in public school for a short time, but by then I had realized that there was more than one way to teach an autistic child. Each child is so unique and different that we felt we needed to consider different modalities to better support Nick.

It was then and there that Michelle had the idea to create something using her background in business to help fertilize by bringing together different people with different intellectual opportunities.

In August 2005, Michelle and Mark became the founding parents of the Jacksonville School for Autism (JSA), a nonprofit, full-service K-12 educational center for students and young adults with mental disorders. autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“When I started JSA, Nick was seven years old,” Michelle said. “I decided to introduce a more integrative model so that if there was an expert on something we could use that particular train of thought. That was it rather than having to say we are “only this” or only that.” This has been our journey with JSA.

What started as a grassroots effort has, according to Michelle, become a groundswell for the school and the community, helping them achieve these additional programs. JSA welcomes children and adults from 2 and a half to 33 years old.

The Jacksonville School for Autism helps individuals with autism, and their families, by tapping into all available resources to provide “outside the office” thinking. By emphasizing the upbringing of the whole child to reach their full potential, individualized development programs are most effective through family and community involvement.

JSA has a variety of classrooms to meet the needs of each student. These varied programs enable successful student development and ensure comfortable transitions from new to advanced learners. More than just a place of learning, JSA has created an environment where relationships grow and lives are changed.

Upon graduation, many students find themselves without formal financial support and/or professional services on which they can fully rely. JSA tries to combat this with its “On Campus Enterprises” programs. When JSA moved its school and clinic to its current larger location, staff and students had the opportunity to expand the professional gardening program as one of those ventures.

“At our old location, we started the gardening program as a form of therapy, just to see if the kids would accept,” said Kayne McPhillips, JSA’s gardening program coordinator. “It ended up being a very powerful form of therapy. Connections were made, there was exercise, and from there endorphins were released. There was just a real sense of pride and purpose in cultivating their own stuff. It was amazing on every level.

The JSA gardening program has been running well for over six years now. When they moved into their current location about two years ago, the first year was dedicated to the building and its commissioning. The second year, McPhillips was able to start focusing on the garden again. They have since built raised beds for vegetables, a butterfly garden and a retaining wall of herbs.

“In this world when it comes to grants and scholarships, kids lose their resources at the age of 22,” McPhillips explained. “Because of this, they depend on their family nucleus and their caretakers to get them through. What we are focusing on now is building systems that give them structure. Once they have completed their studies, they start working for the program.

As part of this process, what they did in the classroom for six years is now something they are bringing to the community for the first time. JSA currently owns a food trailer and is trying to get a presence in different farmers markets.

“What that does is put a premium on campus infrastructure,” McPhillips said. “It’s essential for them to be able to keep building, to add more raised beds, a greenhouse and whatever else can support them to create the product.”

In addition to weekly therapy sessions, markets and community involvement, on-campus enterprise in the gardening program will include growing and harvesting, cleaning, preparation and production, packaging and labeling, order fulfillment, deliveries and shipping, storage and preservation. Gardening sessions for older students focus more on product development.

“We’ve created an environment with this where we still have fun together,” McPhillips said of the gardening program. “Half the time they don’t even realize they’re working. They do what they have to do and then 30 minutes later they realize how much time has passed and talk about the fun they had in the garden. In all areas, this had a very significant impact.

THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP red coats are an entity made up of volunteer former Championship Presidents who oversee an annual grant program to support local charities. Each year, THE PLAYERS grant program receives more than 150 applications from charities in Northeast Florida. The Red Coats then match it by selecting the charities that best fit the core PLAYERS.

“The Jacksonville School for Autism ticked all the boxes with us,” said 2022 PLAYERS Championship Tournament Chair Bill Welch. “You talk about kids, you talk about education, and you talk about everything we love to stand for. It really is such a great community service that they perform here so it was perfect for us.

This year’s annual Red Coat Rideout on Wednesday included a visit to the Jacksonville School for Autism, not only to learn more about the school, but also to donate $10,000.


Comments are closed.