Corks for a Cause: Emerald Coast Autism Center

Special to The Log
The Emerald Coast Autism Center is one of the many local charities that benefits from the funds raised by the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation.

Editor’s Note: Each month the Destin Log will share a story from one of the charity partners benefiting from the support of Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation.

Did you know that one in every 68 children is diagnosed with autism? Those odds mean autism touches hundreds of families along the Emerald Coast. Fortunately, the Emerald Coast Autism Center (ECAC), a non-profit organization based in Valparaiso, is offering education and support to children with autism in Okaloosa and Walton Counties.

ECAC has been a Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation partner since 2010. Through this partnership, ECAC has earned donations totaling more than $600,000. Over the last three years alone, DCWAF has donated $550,000 toward the purchase of land and facility construction as well as student scholarships. In 2012, ECAC received $100,000 allowing for a land purchase and facility construction/improvements. In 2013, ECAC received $150,000 to fund a land purchase, facility construction, as well as scholarships for children on the autism spectrum. ECAC is already outgrowing its current space and in 2014, ECAC received $300,000 to fund scholarships and a critical capital campaign.

Thanks to funding from DCWAF and others, ECAC has entered into an agreement with Northwest Florida State College to build a 14,500 square foot facility on campus that will allow students to access the college campus facilities.  In return, NWFSC will be able to offer their current education students hands-on exposure to children with autism and expand their existing curriculum.

“We are so grateful for the generosity of DCWAF and all the patrons who support the foundation. Their commitment has impacted the lives of so many families with autism in the community and we could not achieve this goal without their support” says ECAC Co-founder Heidi Blalock.

ECAC has seen significant growth and has big future plans. Founded by Staci Berryman and Heidi Blalock, in just five years ECAC has grown from supporting five children to 75 children with 50 therapists. These students range in age from two to 15 and military families account for 68 percent of the students. They have watched children say their first words, learn to read, overcome severe behavior problems, and most importantly, acquire the ability to function independently.

“Our community is very fortunate to have ECAC here to assist so many families. The planned facility on the campus of Northwest Florida State College will allow ECAC to greatly expand their critical support for children and families challenged by autism,” said John Russell, president of Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation.

Meet Nicolas. He is a vibrant young boy who loves puzzles, singing songs, and playing on the playground with friends. Nicolas began learning at ECAC in August of 2014 at age 4.  When he started he was generally nonverbal. He did not engage in any functional play with toys, and would sit with his peers for no longer than three minutes. Today, Nicolas is forming two syllable sounds. He is able to say several whole words such as mama, dada, shoe, and eye. He sits through lunch, where he used to bang his head. Due to DCWAF’s support, Nicolas as well as seven additional students are now enrolled in ECAC full-time.

 “As parents of a child with autism, my husband and I know the challenges that families of children on the autism spectrum face every day,” said Blalock. “We’re excited to have DCWAF as a partner and be able to bring positive change in dozens of children’s lives.”