Quesnel resident Laura Hender has been awarded the Paul Harris Fellowship by the Quesnel Rotary Club for her work as an autism awareness ambassador.
The Paul Harris Fellowship is named for and honours Paul Harris who founded Rotary along with three business associates in 1905. The Rotary Foundation states that the award is given to individuals who have “shown that they are prepared to go that extra mile in support of people in need,” and is an “emphatic acknowledgement of the appreciation shown for tangible and significant assistance given for the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among people of the world.”
Hender was completely caught off guard and had no idea the Rotary Club planned to present her with the award. She had been asked to speak on autism awareness during a Rotary Club online Zoom meeting and a few days before the meeting date a mysterious package arrived at her door from Quesnel Rotary with instructions that it should not be opened before the meeting.
“I have been to Rotary meetings and events before, I know that they often do playful things in their meetings so I thought OK it’ll be part of that,” said Hender. “I thought maybe they were going to give a donation to the pin campaign, I didn’t know what was going on and then I was asked to open the envelope and inside was a beautiful folder with the award inside — I was actually brought to tears, I did not expect it at all and it was quite and honour.”
Hender, who’s son Matthew is autistic, has been a champion in raising autism awareness and education in her community ever since she witnessed how Mathew was unfairly treated and labeled at a young age due to lack of understanding around his condition.
Hender remembers one such instance when Mathew was four years old and was given a “time-out” by a swimming instructor who thought he was misbehaving when in reality Mathew did not understand what he was supposed to do.
The instructor had asked the swimmers to grab a kick board and swim to the other end of the pool. Matthew stood still, having not understood the verbal directions, which prompted the instructor to label him as being difficult and issue the “time-out.” Hender believes that if the instructor had been more aware of how to work with autistic individuals, the incident would have easily been avoided.
“She gave him a ‘time-out’ because she said he was misbehaving for not doing what she asked, but in reality, people with autism, they don’t often learn in just one way, so her just saying verbally ‘can you grab kick board and swim to the end of the pool,’ he didn’t know what she wanted him to do — but if she had demonstrated by grabbing the kick board and doing the activity, he would have known exactly what to do,” said Hender.
From that moment on Hender was determined to do everything she could to educate and elevate autism awareness and education in her community in order to insure that not only Matthew but all individuals living with autism could be better understood and would not be treated or labeled unfairly.
An effective way that Hender found she was able to help the community better understand Matthew was to create a custom autism awareness brochure containing information about her son and his condition.
“What it does is it eliminates that awkward conversation that I would have to have with people in front of Mathew,” said Hender. “It has been a really useful tool, especially when he did any sports or had a substitute teacher, that was a big one because they walk into a class room with 20 to 30 different personalities and now here’s a brochure they can look at and know this is what autism is like and this is what is specific to Matthew.”
The brochures worked so well that Hender had other families reaching out to her asking if she could help them create their own custom version for a member of their own family.
“They send me photos and information and it just talks about the child, what are their interests — and it will also talk about any sensory issues they might have. [Having a brochure] just helps so much.”
As Matthew grew up and began to advocate for himself, he and his mother began to work on autism education initiatives together and for the past eight years have been designing and selling autism awareness pins with all the proceeds going to local charities of Matthew’s choice.
The first year the mother and son duo started the pin initiative they ordered and sold 100 pins, this year they challenged themselves to sell 600 pins and not only did those sell out but the pair managed to order and sell another 200 for a total of 800 pins sold and $1,600 raised.
Mathew has chosen the Quesnel Special Olympics track and field team as this year’s donation recipient and with the funds the team has ordered new uniforms, the logo of which Matthew helped to design.
Hender says that her dream for the pin project was that they would help to inspire positive conversation around autism awareness and now, with the growing success of the initiative she and Matthew hope to send their message around the globe.
“People have been reaching out to me from all over. This year I’ve sent pins to Prince George, Williams Lake, Terrace — and something really cool that happened after the Rotary Zoom meeting,” said Hender. “We had a young lady from Italy on the call, I guess she was an exchange student with Rotary and as soon as we finished the meeting she popped up on my Facebook messenger and she’s asked for pins and she is going to distribute them in Italy — so I am getting a package to send to her and we are very excited to say that we are now global.”
Hender says she will continue to share her family’s story and run the pin campaign to further grow autism awareness and education for as long as she is able. While she is honoured and proud to receive the Paul Harris Fellowship she maintains that knowing she is helping others is the greatest reward.
“You know, you start off doing something like this not to be recognized for it, it was to try and help my son and in the process we ended up helping other people which is just amazing,” said Hender.