“Parents of children with autism need community resources, education, training and support to help their children thrive and succeed,” said Cheryl Ocampo, a graduate psychology student at Kaplan University. “I have a child with autism. I couldn’t just sit and wait for the right resources—they weren’t there! I had to create a support group myself. It feels great to know that I’ve helped a lot of parents, but in the end, I think they’ve helped me even more.”
Cheryl earned her undergraduate degree in business. In the middle of her studies, she found that her youngest child wasn’t meeting her milestones, and at 3 years old, Zariah was diagnosed with autism.
“I had no idea what autism was. I thought there must be some medicine she could take to make her better. I didn’t know anyone whose child had a disability. I felt completely alone. I went through many stages of grief and I hit rock bottom.”
Cheryl picked herself up and sought help from her local community in Queens, New York. She was shocked to learn that despite the statistics that autism affects 1 in 88 families (CDC, 2013), there was no local support group.
She didn’t let this obstacle stop her from helping her daughter. Cheryl started an informal local support group and couldn’t believe the response! “We started out small, but gradually through word of mouth we grew to more than 50 members and now we are open to the community.” In 2008, they incorporated and became a non-profit funded by donations and fundraising as well as Cheryl’s own money. The Queens County Parents Autism Coalition (QCPAC) (www.qcpac.org) was formed.
Cheryl said, “QCPAC is focused on helping families become the best advocates they can be for their children. We hold workshops, host guest speakers, and help families navigate the complex health care system to obtain and maintain services. We also coordinate group outings, events, and play dates because QCPAC is more than a support group, it is a family.”
She continued, “We’re parents but we’re people first. We also try to make time to get out and have fun. I love our parents-only ‘autism-free’ nights where we go to dinner, the movies, bowling…and we are not allowed to talk about our problems!”
In addition, as a result of her newfound knowledge and advocacy work, Cheryl decided to change her career aspirations, choosing to build a career helping children with behavioral disabilities. After she earned her undergraduate degree, she enrolled in Kaplan University’s Master of Science in Psychology program and is working toward becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA). She obtained a job in the industry as an information and outreach specialist with United We Stand of New York: Queens Special Education Parent Center. She heard about the position through QCPAC and the two organizations now partner together to help local families.
“I feel so much better knowing that my daughter will achieve her best potential,” Cheryl said. “I just learned that it won’t be on someone else’s timetable.”