Gatepath sets sights on future

Bill Silverfarb/Daily Journal Harrison Walkowiak, 23, secured a job at CVS Pharmacy in South San Francisco through job training programs at Community Gatepath. The nonprofit agency just celebrated its 90th birthday.

Community Gatepath has been serving people with developmental disabilities on the Peninsula for 90 years and is turning its sights on its next 90 years by introducing new programs to accommodate the growing number of autism cases in the area.

The nonprofit agency turned 90 on June 30 and serves more than 8,300 county children and adults with developmental disabilities.

Three new services, AbilityPath.org, Access to Independence and Autism Works were developed to be greater tools for parents and to help young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities transition into a life of independence.

The number of autism cases have grown by leaps and bounds in the past 30 years, particularly in the Bay Area, and a large group of those diagnosed with autism in the late 1980s and early 1990s are now becoming young adults.

Gatepath offers life skills, job training and transitional programs that allow its clients to become less dependent on their parents and government, said Erika Bjork, Gatepath’s senior communications manager.

Autism is a severe developmental disorder that begins at birth or within the first two and a half years of life. Most autistic children are normal in appearance but spend their time engaged in behavior markedly different from those of typical children, according to the Autism Research Institute.

Gatepath has developed a broad range of programs that assist parents and their autistic children from early development through adulthood.

It has also received federal stimulus money to get people with disabilities job ready and to help them find jobs.

Harrison Walkowiak, 23, has just finished participating in Gatepath’s transitional program. The San Bruno resident has autism and has been working at CVS Pharmacy on El Camino Real in South San Francisco for four weeks now. He anticipates being hired full-time, though, and is excited about it.

"I just want to be like the other employees,” he said. "I like working.”

Dexter and Leica Alvaro had an at-risk birth and were told when their son Joziah was 3 years old that he was mentally retarded. They had Joziah reevaluated at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Hospital where he was eventually diagnosed with autism.

"It was depressing at first,” Dexter Alvaro said. "It was something we thought of as a burden, something given to us without our approval.”

The Alvaros accessed Gatepath’s mobility services for Joziah before the autism diagnosis was made.

"Communicating with other parents was the biggest help for my wife,” he said.

Until Alvaro’s wife became pregnant with their second child, she did most of the child rearing. That has changed in the past year though, as Joziah is now 4 and Leica cares for the couple’s newborn.

"I never appreciated how much my mom took care of us,” he said. "My wife thinks I’m closer to him. I’ve become his personal care giver.”

Alvaro rediscovered a love for writing and just completed a screenplay based loosely on his experience raising a boy with autism.

"I will do anything and everything to make sure that my son grows up happy and healthy,” he said.

Gatepath often serves a client from preschool through to adulthood and on to advanced age.

Its board, recognizing the downturn in the economy and availability of less state funds, boosted its landscaping business to help keep people with disabilities employed and to raise additional money to support its core services.

Its major fundraiser, "The Power of Possibilities” is later this year and will feature keynote speaker Lauren Potter, who plays Becky Jackson on the television show "Glee.” Potter has Down syndrome.

"Celebrating our 90th anniversary is really more about looking toward the next 90 years. We have taken decades of experience, relationships and front-line knowledge serving people with disabilities and applied it toward the needs of families today,” said Sheryl Young, Community Gatepath’s chief executive officer.

Community Gatepath offers autism support groups for parents. The next support group meeting is Aug. 3, 6:30 p.m., Niall P. McCarthy Center for Children and Families, 1764 Marco Polo Way, Burlingame. Check out www.abilitypath.org for parent resources.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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