I Started A School For Autism Education In Africa—And I Got My Start At NECC was originally published on WayUp.
Whitney Hammel has changed more than a few lives—and in more than a few ways.
Growing up in a small town in Oregon—“like, a 500-people-small town”—Whitney’s dreams were fairly humble for someone who has and continues to accomplish so much. After graduating into a tough economy with a degree in early-childhood development and special education, she wanted to find a stable job that would help her get her master’s degree.
That’s when she found The New England Center for Children—one of the world’s leading autism education and research institutions—and started a journey that would lead to so much more than just her own development.
How NECC ‘Opened Doors’ For Whitney—And Taught Her To Do The Same
Like so many of the teachers at The New England Center for Children, Whitney was attracted to the ability to start her career alongside some of the preeminent experts in the field of autism education and applied behavior analysis (ABA), the scientific discipline upon which NECC’s evidence-backed, effective approach is based.
“The opportunities for growth and learning are just huge,” Whitney tells us. “You have the top people in the field in one place. And these experts are accessible. You can speak with these individuals and you can learn from them.”
Plus, the ability to get her master’s degree—for free—while working at the center was also a huge draw.
“The opportunities for continued education are just amazing. To go on to get your master’s is quite expensive and it can be a painful process,” she explains. “But to be at a place where you’re working and then right after you’re taking classes in the same building while also having financial support was incredible.”
But it wasn’t just the education that helped Whitney grow at NECC, she was also given opportunities that she couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. When the organization expanded abroad, she was able to consult with the new Abu Dhabi center.
“I learned to work in different cultures and work with families who come from different cultures,” she says. “Plus, I was able to start traveling. All of this really opened my eyes to the world. It was such a huge opportunity.”
Over the next few years Whitney became a foundational member of NECC’s Abu Dhabi team and finally took on a leadership role in their new India center when she was given the opportunity. This was where her story really began.
Bringing Compassionate Autism Education To West Africa
Working in India gave Whitney the opportunity to help a region access an entirely new standard of care. As one of the few practitioners of ABA—NECC’s evidence-based approach to autism education—in the area, she was able not only to help a new set of children and families, but also to see what it takes to build a program.
“One thing that I learned during my time with The New England Center for Children is how important it is to build capacity and to support others in continuing their education to further themselves in the field of ABA to make that bigger impact,” Whitney says. “Because if I’m the only one there doing this work, then we can only work with so many children. But if we can help build capacity, bring more people in, and also build capacity at a local level, that’s how we can spread ABA and make a greater impact.”
And this gave her an idea of what she might want to do next, but she didn’t have any concrete plans…yet. However, when she took a trip to Ghana with a friend from college, they both had the same thought: They could do what NECC had done in India, but in West Africa, starting with Ghana.
That’s how Autism Compassion Africa (ACA) came to be.
“I had gone for a visit and really loved it, but I realized that services were really limited in the country for children with autism. And there were no Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) in Ghana at that time. It seemed like this great opportunity for us to work together and really make a difference,” she says.
And they’ve done just that. Since moving to Ghana a few years ago, Whitney and her team at ACA have grown from just two students in their day program—modeled after NECC’s day program in the US—to more than 15 students. Whitney also consults with clients in different West African cities to help support the ACA programs and staff.
And it’s not just Whitney working hard to help children with autism lead better lives. Her team is also receiving ABA-based training. Plus, they’re helping to drum up support, raise awareness, and spark public concern with their outreach programs.
That last part can be particularly difficult, because in many parts of Ghana, autism is an unfamiliar concept. This can lead to more than just a lower standard of care. In some cases, serious mistreatment of children and adults with autism can occur.
However, by focusing on building capacity and reaching out to people in the communities they serve, Whitney’s team at ACA have managed to improve the lives of so many children with autism. Plus, they’ve paved the way for others to do the same.
“It’s kind of like planting a seed. The New England Center started with just six kids in Boston, and they planted that seed and it continued to grow,” Whitney says. “The same goes with the work we did in India, and these staff members were able to go on to get certified and they help others do the same. All of this just leads to more opportunities for families to get the help they need. And that’s what we’re doing in Ghana now, too.”
Looking to grow with an organization that makes a huge impact? Check out open opportunities at The New England Center for Children on WayUp!