More About Me
I grew up in a family of 12 children. I am a first generation American, raised poor and Catholic, on Central Avenue in Philadelphia. My childhood was rough in a number of ways, including the fact that school was always an enormous struggle. Very early on I was labeled a special education child, a difficult child. Because I was being hit at home, I often hit other children at school, but in those days people didn't dig very deep to find out how I was doing at home. The combination of all these things resulted in my not believing I had any intelligence, that I could ever "be" anything, and that I could not compete on an equal footing with other people. I received a variety of mental health labels during this time, including delayed echolalia, retardation, adjustment reaction of adolescence, psychosis, schizophrenia...
Because I barely graduated high school, and didn't understand I had choice in life, I gravitated to working class jobs where I could use my physical strength to get by. My first jobs were labor jobs that I loved, but made it hard to survive financially. Then I was injured in a car accident and was forced to retrain. My beloved urged me to try college but I resisted when I learned students had to use computers. The computer was a symbol of what "smart people" use - and this was a barrier to my understanding that I could be successful in school. During this time, however, I was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome, which was one of the most defining moments in my life. Finally I understood my difficulties interacting with the world! Before the diagnosis I spent years thinking I was stupid, everything was "hard" and that I would never "be" anything. When I was diagnosed with autism, I discovered the way my particular intelligence and capabilities manifested. For that, I am forever grateful. After additional prodding by my family, I enrolled in an adult education computer class to see if I could learn how to use a computer.
I was fortunate to have had a patient and supportive adult education instructor and discovered that, like others who are on the autism spectrum, the computer was very friendly to me, and a great communication tool. To my shock and delight I ended up graduating magna cum laude from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor's of Education degree in Family and Community Services in 1999.
Degree in hand, I went to work as a Social Service Specialist in the Oregon Department of Child Welfare in 2000, out of a desire to help children who were in situations similar to those like I experienced as a child. Because of my struggles, I have always been determined to do whatever I could to make life easier for other children than it was for me growing up. Technology ended up being the tool I could use.
I purchased my own used computer, and no surprise, the hard drive died, and I became completed fixated on teaching myself how to fix computers - I dug computers out of college trash cans, watched online repair videos, read manuals, and discovered I had a knack at fixing computers. I was singularly focused - I set about finding discarded computers, refurbishing them, and then gifting them to children and families who couldn’t afford to buy them. Many of these recipients were the people with whom I was working with at Child Welfare. After I gifted 800 computers to kids living in foster care, I understood that demand and need was very high and I wanted to do something about it.
I found some other folks in my community who were interested in refurbishing computers and had the desire to address the digital divide, but not the means to find community members who needed access to technology. I brought the hobbyists and the geeks together with those who needed computers to build their skills. It was beautiful and something I never expected to be an outcome from my obsession.
In 2004 I took a giant leap: I quit my job at Child Welfare and moved my little enterprise out of my mother-in-law's garage into a real warehouse. I continued to work on building services and programs to address the needs of the community. My whole family got behind the mission! NextStep has trained over 30,000 individuals, many of whom are on the autism spectrum like me. Interestingly, Lane County, OR has one of the highest autism rates in the nation – one in every 90 children are diagnosed as having autism in our community.
After 18 years leading NextStep, I determined there was more for me to do to support my community so I pursued my Masters in Social Work, graduating in 2012 with honors, from Portland State University. I obtained my LCSW in 2015. After retiring from NextStep, I was hired on at PeaceHealth Hospital, as a Vocational/Educational Counselor and the principal counselor in the ICRC Health Technology study. When the research study ended, my wife and I moved to Portland and I worked as the Clinical Supervisor at a SPMI Residential Treatment Facility. My wife and I decided to have one more giant adventure and moved to Mexico for 2 1/2 years. We lived a variety of communities - under the jungle canopy, on the Baja California peninsula, and near the largest lake in Mexico. Family called us home and we returned to Oregon in 2018 and I returned to PeaceHealth as a Team Lead and therapist at PeaceHealth's Young Adult EASA Program, providing support to youth and young adults who are at high risk for psychosis or are experiencing their first episode of psychosis. I retired from PeaceHealth February 2022 and now work full time in private practice.
I am a passionate advocate for people on the autism spectrum, for trauma survivors, for persons who experience psychosis and for people who experience disabilities. I believe all people are brilliant, no matter what label they carry, and should be treated with respect and dignity.
I have an amazing family I treasure. I love talking with my sisters and brothers and my 88 year old mama over the phone and FaceTime, I enjoy hiking, walking with my Belgian Malinois, caring for my chickens, traveling and reading.
A few videos about me and my movement through my life: