Even as a child, Natalie Davis ’12 knew her younger brother Trevor was different.
While most 3-year-olds can produce basic coherent sentences, Trevor’s verbal skills didn’t reach that point until he was 6 or 7 years old. While Natalie was invited to countless parties in school, Trevor ate lunch alone every day.
Trevor was eventually diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder called Asperger’s syndrome, and Natalie’s determination to help him as much as possible led her to become an advocate for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
That desire to help her brother and others like him also led Davis to team up with several other St. Olaf students — Akshar Rambachan ’12, Sara Schaenzer ’12, and Meghan Kleinsteiber ’12 — to establish the Awesome Club Autism Social Skills Program.
The program, developed in close coordination with special education instructors in the Northfield Public Schools, serves autistic students at the middle and high schools. Each Thursday a group of volunteers from St. Olaf visit the two schools, engaging in conversations with the children on topics ranging from food to duct tape — or anything else the younger set is interested in — and playing games such as Red Light, Green Light that encourage interaction and teamwork.
“At the very first meeting, we asked the kids what they wanted the club to be called,” says Schaenzer. “They all were so excited that they decided to name it Awesome Club; it really has lived up to its name the last three years.”
The club’s activities sound simple, but it was a similar social skills program that eventually empowered Davis’s brother Trevor to sit with “buddies” at the lunch table and join after-school activities. “‘Buddies’ was a word we had never heard from him before,” Davis says, noting that these types of programs help boost the self-esteem and communication skills of individuals with autism.
Rambachan, the Awesome Club’s middle school coordinator, has seen firsthand that the program has had a similar impact on local students. When the Awesome Club began in 2009, he started working with a 10-year-old who didn’t say a word to him for the first two months. “He refused to make eye contact, smile or participate in group activities,” Rambachan recalls. “The 13-year-old I said goodbye to this year was smiling and chatty. He even hugged me!”
Awesome Club started out small, serving just four or five students at the middle and high school. It now serves 10 middle school and 17 high school students. And the number of Oles volunteering has grown as well, from the four founding volunteers to 15 students today.
With the founding members graduating this year, Nick Hoverstad ’14 and Noelle Waldschmidt ’13 are preparing to take over leadership of the program next year. “We will continue to bring in new volunteers to make the success of the program lasting for club participants in the future,” Hoverstad says.
And as for Davis’s brother Trevor, he graduated from high school in the top 50 percent of his class and was accepted to St. Cloud State University as a part-time student. Today he is a pianist, an excellent public speaker, and an Eagle Scout, an honor less than 4 percent of Boy Scouts receive.