Non Profit

East Valley Moms Creating a Lifelab for the Autistic Community

Andrea McHattan & Laura Sullivan

My clock has been counting down to June 2022 and it’s quickly approaching.

Ever since my son was diagnosed with Autism 15 years ago, there hasn’t been a day that I didn’t wonder what will happen to him when I’m no longer here. Next June he will be 18 and that was the milestone marker I set for myself to provide him with a set of skills that would enable him to go on without me if necessary. Thankfully, I’m healthy and that deadline can be extended, however, the pressure continues to find the resources that will help me teach the skills he will need to be completely independent.  

I know what you’re thinking.  We all want that for our children. That’s true!  However, there are many skills that our neurotypical children will learn without us.  They see it and learn it from friends, TV, teachers…even YouTube. They have the ability to learn on the fly, whereas our autistic kiddos need steps and sometimes the steps need substeps, and the amount of time required to learn one skill can take years. 

Parents of autistic children inherently develop an extra set of worries and with those worries we have an extra set of requirements.  We can’t just pick a school, place our kids on the school bus, and say, “Have a nice day, honey!”  Our school years are riddled with meetings, emails, and conferences about behaviors, modifications, accommodations, and learning methodologies.  If we are extra lucky we get to advocate for our children weekly with judgmental educators that don’t understand how difficult it is to wear our shoes. 

But wait, there is more.  I’ve only touched on academics and grades K-12. What about life skills? If we as parents are not lucky enough to be Domestic Engineers, how do we find the time to teach our children the rest of the life skills they need to be self-sufficient?  I mean, we are not talking about getting dressed and brushing teeth.  Yes, personal hygiene is definitely on the list and most of the time, we can accomplish that one, however, what about laundry, cooking, shopping, transportation, danger awareness? The list goes on and that clock is ticking.  

Many families turn to in-home services such as habilitation and ABA for these additional skills.  Unfortunately, finding qualified, invested and consistent providers is difficult, not to mention it is usually necessary to dedicate a separate amount of time for each service.  The schedule can be very full, very quickly, and exhausting for the whole family. 

Most families that have children with disabilities run into all of these issues and sometimes more when you plug in variations in the family structure, the level of the disability, location, etc.  I find myself speaking with many moms that share the common thread of concerns and asking the same questions.  Now that they are done with high school, where do we go from here? What do we do now? How can I continue to increase independence?  How do I provide quality of life?

Jack and Laura

Just before COVID-19 discombobulated our world, I met Laura and Jack Sullivan.  At that time, I was working at a home and community-based service agency and I interviewed Jack for placement in a group-supported employment program. I immediately understood Laura’s desire for Jack to have the opportunity at the integral benefits of employment. Unfortunately, a series of events would prevent him from participating in the program.  Things happen for a reason. 

Laura and I communicated mostly through email during 2020, updating each other on the status of the red tape, and during one of those conversations, she mentioned she was moving forward with a plan to provide Jack and others, a place to continue learning the skills that would provide them with quality of life, independence, productivity, and joy.   That place that existed only in her dreams is now coming to fruition, The Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning a 501(c)(3) organization. 

I was thrilled to learn that her plans would create a much-needed environment for many and I was able to visit Laura at her first Foundation event, Club L.A.S.S.O. (Life, Abilities, Social Skills, Organization). During the event, I met her Co-Founder Andrea McHattan and heard about all of the great plans they have for this incredible organization.

This is the kind of stuff that gets me fired up!  Immediately I asked her if we could set up a quick Q&A session to provide the public with more information.  Please continue reading to learn about The Foundation, upcoming events, and how you can help their fundraising efforts.

The Inspiration

Q: Why did you start the Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning? What kind of community needs influenced you to start this foundation?

“My oldest son Jack is 22 and has profound autism.

Mesa became our home in June 2019 as he was about to age out of the New York school system and special needs services ceased. So the five of us packed up our lives and started over here in Arizona, where services for special needs adults are among the best in the country. In 2020, Mesa was declared the first Autism Certified City in America.

I originally enrolled Jack in a Mesa public high school while state services were being secured, and then, of course, COVID-19 hit, and everything came to a crashing standstill. While he was in school, he continued to study the norm of math and grammar, but I knew something was missing. He couldn’t understand the concept of money or how to make a simple meal. How was he going to live once I am gone? How will he care for himself or maintain a job? These are questions that haunt every special needs mom at 3 a.m. I was working with him one day when I felt very deeply the need to do something to help Jack and others like him, and as a mother, educator, and autism advocate, I was just waiting for the time to be right.

In 2021, I co-founded The Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning along with my friend and colleague, Andrea McHattan, a mother of seven, consultant, and life-skills coach. I interviewed and hired Andrea to help implement a life skills education for Jack. We worked as a team and bonded over a common goal — helping Jack gain independence and confidence at the highest level possible. Many hours of curriculum curation and design, led us to realize the great need Arizona Families have for our combined skill set, passions, and talents.”

Q: What results do you plan to achieve? 

“The primary focus of The Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning is to fund scholarships for The Lifelab Institute, which will have a flagship location in Mesa.

The TLI is unique. Designed to provide a positive, hands-on/goal-oriented approach to teaching essential life and social skills in a safe, nurturing, simulated home environment. Our program is modeled to address real-life and social skills needed to foster confidence and eventual self-reliance and independence. We are also committed to bring opportunities for social connections to our neighborhood and the entire east valley. A harvest dance, winter ball. pizza parties, movie nights, game nights, and craft-making are just a few opportunities we have on the calendar so far.”

Sign up for Club LASSO

Q: What do you personally, spend most of your time on?

“Since my arrival in Arizona, I spend most of my time caring for Jack and teaching life skills. Andrea, Jack, and I experiment with different programming and materials so we can share with future students and decide what is helpful and what is not. The second biggest thing I love to spend my time on is making connections with other families who are living the same life. Before ever landing in Arizona, I met and befriended online Moms in Arizona who were so eager to help me in our transition. They told me where to go, who to call, and how to obtain services for Jack, and I am in their debt. I told them I will use my prior experience with foundation work in New York to help us all.”

Building The Foundation

Q: What are your goals for the next three to five years? What priorities will help you achieve them? What barriers do you foresee?

“It is my primary goal to open a center for adults with autism to learn life skills, job skills, and have a place to socialize. The only barrier I see is funding, as there is a great need for this type of program in the East Valley. Since Mesa was declared the first Autism Certified City in America, it is great to establish appropriate programming here where people are moving, shopping, living.”

Q: What are your plans for meeting your financial goals?

“The Jack Sullivan Foundation For Life & Learning is in the process of writing grants for seed money and general operational costs. We are hoping for donations and community support and sponsorship.”

Donations can be made on PayPal

“Jack is very creative and loves to share his love of prayer with the world. A few years ago he was very interested in learning how to say the rosary but sometimes had difficulty holding the rosary beads and counting on them because they were so small and his hands remain weak. The idea came to me that Jack could hand-make sturdy beads to assist those who may benefit from using larger beads to pray with. He rolls each bead by hand, paints them, and later strings them on heavy twine. He says, ‘First you make ‘em, then you bake ‘em, then you paint ‘em, then you string ‘em, then you pray.’

Please visit, Jack’s Beads of Joy, shop on Etsy. Proceeds from the sales will directly fund The Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning.

Q: If you are able to meet your financial goals or given a substantial amount of money, where would you apply it?

“We are a new organization and would need money for both program launch and structural needs. It is our goal to open a center where we can teach valuable life, workforce skills, and social skills.”

It takes a Village

Q: Where is your team strong, and where does it need development?

“Our team is strong and passionate, however, we will need to grow as our services grow.  We are looking forward to welcoming professionals who share our passions and (to) helping our population.  We will be looking for more volunteers, therapists, (and) specialists, so please reach out to us.”

Q:  Why is this so important to you? Laura was very emotional while answering this question…

“Before moving to Arizona, I was alone in the Hudson Valley for 20 years isolated in a big house on a ton of property with no neighbors or local friends, family. My husband worked constantly and traveled a bit and I was very alone and exhausted with very little help. I don’t want mothers to feel this way and so I feel called to create programming here in AZ. I will not allow Jack’s diagnosis to end in tragedy. Helping others helps me make sense of my life and perhaps why I was called to do this.”

Q: What else would you like to tell the community?

“We are looking for space in Mesa! Donations, volunteers, more information to come.

Please visit The Jack Sullivan Foundation For Life And Learning | Facebook.

In conclusion, Laura is one of many moms looking for the pieces of the proverbial puzzle that are missing, or perhaps were never made because they are made to order… unique. 

If you are a parent interested in social events for your child or the upcoming life-skills services in the planning, please visit Laura’s Foundation page on Facebook.

If you are a therapist, volunteer, or specialist that is itching to be involved in something that will touch the community on a very personal level, please message Laura on Facebook. 

If you are a generous soul (or business), that wants to share your blessings with the community, please reach out to Laura on Facebook, or donate to her donation account on PayPal.  

No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Robin Williams
The Jack Sullivan Foundation for Life and Learning Board Members:
Laura Sullivan, President & CEO | Laura Sullivan, Co-Founder | Andrea McHattan, Co-Founder
Sean Sullivan, Treasurer | Jaclyn Terry, Secretary | Andrea McHatton, Board Member

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