Revisiting Old

WORDS BY Cheryl Pangborn Photos By Katherine Ives Photography

April is Autism Awareness month.

I’m writing this article not from an outside perspective, but as someone who is on the front lines of raising a child with special abilities. My child is now an adult, and the truth of the matter is that autism does not end because they grow up.

Finding a meaningful and productive way forward when your child ages out of school becomes another challenge for so many of us. I had the privilege of spending time with Maranda Porter, a beautiful and inspirational lady, who has personal experience with the journey we call Autism. Maranda’s nephew Kaelob is on the spectrum. You might remember his story from a past issue of Reflections. It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years since we first met Maranda and then seven year old Kaelob.

Like most parents who receive this diagnosis, Kaelob’s mother Tarsha, and the rest of the family, felt helpless and unsettled about what to do and where to find help. In the face of this uncertainty, Maranda decided to go back to school to get her Masters Degree in Psychology and became a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. With the vision of helping Kaelob and other families who were facing the same circumstances, Maranda created a community resource called F.R.I.E.N.D.S. which stands for Finding Resources in Educational Needs and  Developmental Services. F.R.I.E.N.D.S. has been serving Richmond Hill and the surrounding communities since 2010.

Fast forward to 2024, Kaelob has come a long way, and now at 20 years old is gainfully employed at LUV Car Wash in Pooler. The struggle to find Kaelob an appropriate working environment wasn’t without its pitfalls. Maranda explains, “Kaelob wanted a job from the day he turned 13. Every time our family would go have a meal at Carey Hilliards, he would repeatedly say, “Work at Carey Hillards tomorrow.” We would keep replying, “okay we’ll see.” Maranda describes Kaelob’s speech as a bit “choppy“ and they felt he would need one-on-one assistance initially to hold a job. Maranda put on her “auntie advocate cap” and approached a member of the Hilliard family, along with his Therapist, Moneek Brown, explaining their unique situation, and Kaelob got his first job. He worked successfully as a server for a year and a half at the restaurant with the assistance of his therapist!

As time went on, Kaelob’s focus changed to cars. “We would take Kaelob to the Tesla dealership because that was his favorite car. He could tell us all about the models and intricacies of the vehicle,” she laughs. “And when we’d get there, he’d ask the same question, “work at Tesla dealership?” And as always, we would say, “okay we’ll see.” Maranda admits that Covid derailed a lot of the momentum they were making with Kaelob. “Summer camps were canceled, therapy visits were modified… It was a difficult time. However, through it all, Kaelob just kept asking the same question. “When am I going to work?””

Maranda had a spark of inspiration when taking Kaelob through the car wash. “People with autism are very sensory focused, so he always loved that whole experience. Since the age of 3, we would drive him through to assist with comforting and calming him down when he was overstimulated or upset.” So, Maranda did what she does best. Advocating for her nephew, she contacted LUV Car Wash through an inquiry button on their website. She waited somewhat patiently but wasn’t getting any response. Finally, one afternoon she decided to just walk into the car wash armed with her resolve to get Kaelob a job. She introduced herself to the manager, who immediately recognized her name, and said that her email had been sent out to all of the managers locally, and he assured her she was on his “to do list.” As it would happen, they gave Kaelob his dream job!

“Getting him settled on the job was notably “a little rocky” to start, but they were kind enough to allow me, Kaelob’s older brother, or cousin to accompany him. “He was so excited when a Tesla came in!” Maranda recalls. “I quickly reminded him that he had to stay focused.” He has remembered to clock in every day, and is really thriving there. Kaelob is washing, drying and folding all of the towels, refilling spray bottles, emptying the trash and keeping the stations stocked. And he’s doing it with an excited smile and an exuberance that’s contagious.”

You would think that the level of perseverance it took to get Kaelob the perfect employment opportunity would be enough for a Maranda, but she just keeps going. She’s in talks with the manager locally and regionally about expanding their workforce to include others with special abilities. “Together we’re trying to come up with a way to publicly acknowledge autism awareness throughout the LUVS organization.”

Maranda remains passionate, excited, emotional and determined, and as a mother walking the same path, I feel these reactions every day. I am grateful for F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and champions like Maranda who are looking beyond our school system into adulthood for ways we can make it successful for our kids. Something Maranda said to me so many years ago resonates still today, “I keep going hard. If it doesn’t exist, we make it exist, so Kaelob can have the same quality of life as other children.”

One of the things I’ve come to realize is that these adults give us perspective. The simple pleasures they enjoy, the way they respond to a society that is leery of them, is humbling. They remind us every day not to be petty or sweat the small stuff. As Maranda said a few years ago, “Come on society! We still have a long way to go. These people need opportunities and they need F.R.I.E.N.D.S.”