Autism School Perseveres Amidst State Budget Crisis

FOCUS: Where Autism and Altruism Meet

-Fresh Start School’s $100K Public and Corporate Fundraising Campaign to Continue Support of Crucial Services-

When you meet Leslie, you are greeted with a warm smile and inquisitive conversation. She looks and seems to behave like any other teenage girl, except, according to Fresh Start School Executive Director Donna Swanson, a year ago Leslie would never have had the ability to even look up and make eye contact.

“Leslie has been learning to control her anxiety,” explains Swanson. “So many of our students, along with navigating the world with an Autism diagnosis, also must manage comorbid or secondary diagnoses. That’s why we started the Fresh Start School. We want our kids to have a safe place to grow and learn. Our staff include certified educators and experienced clinical staff so that the school creates an environment that provides a safe, welcoming sense of home and security. Only when children feel secure and comfortable with themselves can they confidently approach academic work. Just like anybody else!”

Cozy and inviting are what make The Fresh Start School in Canton unique and successful. It is one of only a few Autism Spectrum-oriented schools in Hartford County that is approved by the CT Department of Education. Like other schools, creating an ambiance of community is key. However, Swanson and her staff go to great lengths to make their facility feel like a second home to their students. “We really are like a family here,” states Swanson. “We still have former students and parents drop in just to say hello.”

Whereas the school has only been in operation for one year, its parent organization – the FOCUS Center for Autism – has been serving children with Autism and their families through their clinical day and after school programs for over 17 years. In total, close to 1000 children and families have been served.

Swanson is keenly aware of the growing need to serve and help children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her desire to help these children and to secure funding that can ensure that quality education stays available are what keep her up at night. Swanson is like the fairy godmother to scores of children fighting for a chance to be accepted. Despite state budget issues, parents are still in need and are seeking support for their children from The Fresh Start School.

“We’re like the little engine that could,” she humbly states. “We’ve faced closing our doors plenty of times over the years, but somehow we have always managed. This time, though...” her voice trails, as the weight of her unsaid words penetrate the air. State budget issues are affecting education across the state, including the smaller special education schools like Fresh Start.

“Everything we get goes to the kids,” remarks Swanson. “In the past staff and I have willingly taken furloughs just so that the best services wouldn’t be taken from our students. One student even offered all the money from his allowance, to make sure our school keeps on going. He knows what this curriculum has done for him and he wants others to have that same chance at a richer future.”

November is National Non-Profit Awareness Month and the one-year anniversary of the Fresh Start School’s opening. Swanson hopes to celebrate the achievement by kicking off the Fresh Start School annual fundraiser, beginning in November this year. All proceeds from the fundraising will be used to support the Fresh Start School. Swanson is not only appealing to the general public and the Autism community but also to any businesses interested in providing support or sponsorships for future FOCUS events. Private and corporate monetary donations can be sent directly to FOCUS Center for Autism, made on the FOCUS website homepage ( and on the FOCUS Center for Autism Facebook page.

“We are so grateful to everyone in the community who has supported us over the years, and know that if we band together again we can keep this train going in the right direction,” Swanson implores. “I know that I am shooting for the stars, but it is essential that we raise $100,000 by May 2018 in order to continue providing these kids essential educational and life skills.”

About FOCUS Center for Autism and the Fresh Start School

Since 2000, the nonprofit FOCUS Center for Autism in Canton has been dedicated to helping children and young adults with autism spectrum and other related disorders achieve their full potential. FOCUS has developed a well-respected model of treatment that has now served over 800 children and families. The FOCUS Fresh Start School is a private, state approved special education program offering children with autism spectrum disorder a quality education experience that addresses both their academic and clinical needs. For more information visit for call (860) 693-8809.

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