When 2020 began, I had already met with the Autism Tennessee staff and board of directors several times and felt really good about where we were headed. We recognized that our families were seeking more and more resources online and decided that we were going to meet them where they are. We invested in technology and created accounts to stream our education and adult programs. We had a great line-up of education topics and presenters, a handful of consulting projects moving forward to create more autism friendly venues in Middle Tennessee, and had moved our Teen & Adult Programming to Saturday mornings to make them more accessible. We added a web based phone system so that our HELPline staff could access our calls from home, which allowed staff more flexibility to maximize their work availability. We secured a web-video hosting site to house all of our new online education events to make them permanently available to our members. I spent the last quarter of 2019 uploading our DVD vault of educational videos from 2015-2018 so that our members could access those resources as well and rebuilt our website so that it had more functionality for our members to access information at their convenience. Our staff worked to vet our Community Partners and common referrals so that we were certain that the information we provide is high quality.
On March 3rd, I awoke to the storms at my home and turned on the TV. It was apparent to me, based on where the newscasters were reporting from, that our building in East Nashville was going to be significantly impacted. As the sun came up, and the images poured in, it was clear that we would be cleaning up for weeks, if not months. Unfortunately, the impact was even worse than we could have imagined. By 6am, I knew we had no power at the building, everything in my office was destroyed, and we were going to have to find a way to communicate with our families. Two days after the tornado hit, we had landed at a "temporary office" generously provided by DIDD. Within a week of the tornado, our HELPline staff had created some very simple instructions about how to handle and create call records. The AutismTN staff and a couple board members got the HELPline back up and running at full capacity. We were forced to suspend all programming and focused on HELPline. Getting the families we serve the help they needed was our NUMBER ONE PRIORITY. We all worked from home most of the week and came to our temporary office for staff meetings. We were optimistic and brainstormed where we would host our in-person monthly events until our building was repaired. We were completely overwhelmed by our amazing Community Partners who generously were offering up their venues for us! We made a list of each option on the dry erase board in our temporary office with pros and cons of each option. I assume those notes remain on the whiteboard today as we have not been back to our temporary building since the pandemic struck in mid-March.
When the world shut down due to the pandemic, AutismTN was oddly unimpacted. We had already pivoted everything to a virtual service delivery two weeks prior. We had our computers and printers at home, our Zoom account was up and running, we had our education video media delivery live on the website, and we had mastered the art of the Google Drive, Google Voice, and Slack for office communication. One could say that the silver lining of the tornados was that our service delivery continued uninterrupted due to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the calls for help on our HELPline were more desperate than ever. We had parents suddenly out of work or attempting to work from home with kids with autism in need of full-time supervision. Therapies were canceled for months until telehealth was approved in July. Many of our families were floundering, as was the stability of AutismTN. We had been forced to cancel our biggest fundraiser of the year and we would not be able to pay staff. Most staff members were furloughed and I cut my own pay significantly. HELPline was the only program that continued during this time.
In May, after securing CARES stimulus funds, we circled the wagons and got back to work. We suspended our consulting projects as most venues, religious institutions, and schools were closed. We reinstated all other programs virtually and they have continued uninterrupted since that time. We have worked hard as a staff to create new Standard Operating Procedures to support how we are now delivering our programs. We have strengthened the quality and reliability of programs offered by AutismTN. I could not be more proud of our team and what we have accomplished.
Thank you for allowing us to be a part of your journey with autism and Happy New Year!