Learning Links Foundation
Super Mom: Mother and Teacher
Her son's autism led Yarisa Echevarría to open a specialized school
By JENNY MERO and produced by ASTRID RODRIGUES
Yarisa Echevarría, 31, sometimes feels like someone has kidnapped her son, Joseph. Without warning, he went from a high-spirited and intellectually curious 18-month-old to a child she couldn't recognize. Hints of Joseph's once affectionate demeanor, infectious laughter, and even his growing vocabulary were gone. Worse yet, he stopped responding to his name. After months of pushing the pediatrician for testing, the culprit had a name: Autism. Joseph was diagnosed with mild to severe autism. "The hardest moment is when they tell you that something is wrong with your child, and this is it," says Echevarría. Unlike a cold, a fever, or even depression, there is no medication for autism. In fact, little is known about the causes of the developmental disorder. Parents will talk about the anguish of trying to get through to their autistic children, who often stop interacting, communicating, and learning. In some instances the signs can be even more dramatic: children rock or flap their hands for hours. And, autism isn't something children outgrow. In severe cases, the disorder keeps them from ever becoming fully functioning adults. Determined to give Joseph a fighting chance at a normal life—which is possible—Echevarría sought help from specialists. At times, she'd intervene and supplement his lessons when she saw he wasn't making progress. Anxious to help him understand concepts, Echevarría would sometimes find herself galloping on the floor so he could make the connection to the horse on the index card. Then two years ago, she took that determination a step further, leaving her job in finance to get formally trained to work with Joseph's autism. Echevarría hoped this would help Joseph. And when she hit a wall when she was looking for adequate summer programs and other professional resources, Echevarría simply decided to start her own with the help of one of Joseph's teachers. After seven months of working tirelessly to establish the non-profit, securing an affordable space, hiring teachers, Echevarría opened Learning Links (now a full-fledged school that goes up to second grade) last June. Though most of the 15 students are Hispanic, a reflection of their Miami surroundings, not all have developmental disorders. Because the goal of the school is to eventually trickle the students back into a regular, age-appropriate classroom, the curriculum is set up in a way that makes the program beneficial for any learner. For example, if a student has mastered the art of cutting paper with scissors and another hasn't, one can teach the other. Rosie Perez, a parent of a daughter with no known developmental issues and a son with Fragile X Syndrome, was simply delighted that she could send both to the same summer camp. Amazed at the progress both children made—and that her son, who often cried when left, was now waving her goodbye—convinced her to switch him to the school. "Yarisa is doing this for her son, but she's helping out so many parents in the process," says Perez. "It's that kind of emotional tie that's missing from many of the programs."
While Echevarría's drive is exponentially high, so is the price of giving each child that kind of education. But that doesn't keep Echevarría from admitting children whose parents can't afford the cost. To make this possible, Echevarría—who is also an artist—conducts fundraisers and taps into the family's savings.
Still, Echevarría's day doesn't end at 2:15 when the school day is over. There is the rushing to get Joseph to more therapy sessions before finally heading home to make dinner.
Joseph, now 6, has made lots of progress since he was first diagnosed. Though his vocabulary is not at the Kindergarten level, he can make simple requests and let people know when he's hungry, for example. Questions about Joseph's age, name and phone number will also solicit responses from him. But Echevarría doesn't just celebrate birthdays and new words. She knows all too well the time and emotional toll it's taken to get here. Which is why Echevarría cheers on everyone's progress as well, often calling the parents at work to share good news. "For a parent with an autistic child, every milestone is gratifying."
Echevarría confesses that this is the hardest thing she's ever had to do in her life. "But it's the most rewarding," she says. Pointing to the big changes in her professional life, Echevarría adds, "I can always get my financials in order, but I can never get back these years of Joseph's life."
The April issue of Selecciones is dedicated to strong mothers who love their children unconditionally. Read more about Super Moms in Selecciones magazine or at http://usa.selecciones.com.
Al Rojo Vivo Coverage of Learning Links Foundation