Caring volunteer saved autism center

Single mom transformed her struggle to survive into triumph of achievement

Forty-two years ago, Lois J. Blackwell's goal was survival — for her three children as well as herself.

Today, as founder and president emeritus of the nationally renowned Judevine Center for Autism based in St. Louis, Mo., Sister Blackwell acknowledges, "My background does not lend itself very closely to where I ended up."

Indeed, the development of what today is an $11 million agency providing a spectrum of services to children and adults with autism as well as their families somewhat parallels her own struggle. Both she and the center have survived and ultimately triumphed.

In 1962, she was a divorced mother of three living in Kansas City, Mo., whose job training amounted to a typing class in high school. She had not yet found the Church. "I first heard of it through my ex-husband's sister," she recounted. "She brought my children to St. Louis to give me a chance to get things squared away, one might say."

All three children were baptized in the spring of 1962. As for their mother, "My goal was survival. I remember Denis Stoddard, who with Kent Ince had baptized and confirmed my children, stopping in Kansas City to visit with me and ask once again when I was going to be baptized. I told him the only time I could possibly be baptized was when it would not be possible for him to do it."

She was working two and a half jobs at the time, and Tuesday was the only day of the week when she was home prior to 11:30 p.m. Brother Stoddard made a baptismal appointment for her the following Tuesday at 11:30 p.m. The day of the baptism, she decided to take a nap, thinking that she would probably miss the appointment "but it would not be my fault, because I could not be blamed for falling asleep!" Exhausted as she was, however, she could not sleep. Finally, she dressed and drove "slowly" to the meetinghouse where the baptism was scheduled, arriving an hour late. The missionaries were outside waiting for her. She saw some irony in a phrase from the hymn that was chosen for the service: "a soul so rebellious and proud as mine." Today, reflecting on the experience of her baptism, she exclaims, "I know the hand of the Lord was in it!"

A Church member offered her a secretarial job at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was involved with graduate students in the Social Exchange Lab, studying environments that would not support deviant behavior. Over time, that was how she became involved with autistic children.

The subject matter of the dissertations she was typing for the graduate students fascinated her. As they worked with autistic children, she volunteered to take data for them, clean up after them, get their materials and edit their papers. "It happened that the children I worked with did better than those with whom I had not worked," she said. "It seemed I had a gift of reaching children."

She discovered that when the children changed, their families changed. "Initially what motivated me was trying to help those families and kids I first got to know," she said. She came to see that her past struggles qualified her in some respects to make a contribution.

In 1970, federal funding ran out for the research work being done on autism at the university. At that time, autism was still regarded as rare. There seemed to be no recourse for individuals and families afflicted with the condition, which has been called "the ultimate learning disability," and which is characterized by impaired communication and odd behavior. Unwilling to see the university program die, Sister Blackwell and 17 families launched a fund-raising effort: a "toll road" that raised $9,000. Parents also volunteered 20 hour a week each to establish what eventually became the Judevine Center. The goal for the endeavor was survival, just as it had been for Sister Blackwell in her personal struggle.

On Oct. 2, 1971, the Judevine Center (Judevine is Sister Blackwell's maiden name) officially opened its doors as a Missouri not-for-profit corporation. She acknowledges that its achievements have far surpassed its initial aims. "Training programs were developed and shared with others," she said. "Programs were modeled after Judevine in many parts of the country."

Today, the center provides in-home services for families in 92 Missouri counties and operates from four project offices.

The center's goals are expressed in this vision statement: "We see Judevine as the hub of an integrated treatment delivery system, based in our training programs, advocating maximum inclusion of children and adults with autism in their homes and communities. We acknowledge the parents' experience and superior knowledge of their son or daughter with autism, recognizing and respecting them as full partners in meeting the immediate needs, as well as in planning for the future of their family member with autism."

In December, Sister Blackwell retired from her active role as president of the center, and in January her daughter Rebecca Blackwell was named as executive director. The founder of the center was honored May 13 when Washington University, where Judevine had its genesis, bestowed the first Honorary Alumna degree upon her.

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