NEWS

Honoring a Hero: Staci Berryman

Special to The Log
Dr. Ty Handy, President of Northwest Florida State College looks on as Emerald Coast Autism Center Co-Founder and Director, Staci Berryman and ECAC Co-Founder and CFO/Treasurer, Heidi Blalock, sign a land lease agreement for their new facility to be built on the college's main campus in Niceville.

Did you know that one in every 68 children will be diagnosed with autism? Fortunately, the Emerald Coast Autism Center (ECAC), a non-profit organization based in Valparaiso, offers education and support to children with autism in Okaloosa and Walton Counties. Autism impacts the development of the brain responsible for social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive learning.

Staci Berryman, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Emerald Coast Autism Center earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education at Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana in 1992. After graduation, she accepted a position as an elementary school teacher in Houston, Texas. In 2004, Berryman became a lead teacher for the Special Services Department at Rocky Bayou Christian School, where her work in special education sparked an interest in autism. As a result, Berryman began working on her Masters in Special Education with Grand Canyon University in 2006, earning her MS in 2007. After attaining her Master's degree she immediately enrolled in the Behavior Analysis program at Penn State University, earning her credentials as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2009.

In 2009, The Emerald Coast Autism Center opened in Valparaiso providing cutting edge research-based education and therapy for five children. Today, ECAC works with over 80 children and their families to provide year round private school and intensive therapy. With a motto of "Reaching Kids, Supporting Families," ECAC utilizes Applied Behavior Analysis therapy for their students and provides an extensive support network for families. The goal of ECAC's therapy is to help each child reach his or her potential by identifying, implementing, and evaluating the ways each student learns best. The primary goals of ABA therapy include increasing language skills, socialization, and functional behaviors. Students at ECAC experience highly individualized attention, often benefiting from a 1:1 ratio, and alternate between more traditional classroom activities and individual tutoring and therapy sessions.

As a result of the center's outstanding reputation and the area's increased demand for this type of service, the ECAC has outgrown its original home. Earlier this year, the organization launched an ambitious $2.5 million fundraising campaign in order to build a state of the art center on the Northwest Florida State College Campus in Niceville. This 14,500 square foot facility will allow ECAC to provide services and therapy for more students and ensure that the center has enough room for consistent and sustainable growth. Looking to the future, Berryman's plans include building a life skills and vocational center for teenage students and young adults diagnosed with developmental disabilities, as well as a group home.

Berryman will be honored as part of the weekly Red, White and Blue Celebration at HarborWalk Village Thursday at 7 p.m. For more information, see www.theemeraldgrande.com/events.