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Autism Nonprofit Founder Marks 25 Years of Seeing Beyond the Spectrum

Donna Swanson and her husband Fred Evans are the co-founders of the FOCUS Center for Autism in Canton. Donna has been working with children affected by Autism for over 25 years. The pair opened the Fresh Start School in 2016.

It’s not uncommon for Donna Swanson, co-founder of the FOCUS Center for Autism, to drop everything and race to the rescue of one of her “kids”. While she has no children of her own, she is everything a mother should be; fierce protector, tireless advocate and compassionate teacher. Ever since she opened her private practice in 1992, Swanson has looked beyond a child’s Autistic behaviors to connect with the person inside.

“When I first became a nurse and began working with children and adolescents, I fell in love with individuals on the Autism Spectrum,” explains Swanson. “I recognized a need that was not being met for this unique population. I knew I wanted to create a nurturing environment that would allow them to become their best selves.”

Donna realized her vision to create the FOCUS Center for Autism with her husband and partner Fred Evans. The pair had already worked together for years running group homes. Fred had also dedicated 20 years to improving the lives of homeless people as the Executive Director of Saint Vincent DePaul Place in Middletown and the Program Director of IMMACARE in Hartford.

Since then, over 800 children from over 65 towns in Connecticut and Massachusetts have joined the FOCUS “family” by attending the Clinical Day Program. The founders and the program have received national and local recognition for their trailblazing methods.

Awards include:

Institute of Living for the Children’s’ Day Treatment Program.

Autism Speaks for dedication to the work FOCUS does with the Autism community.

State of CT – General Assembly Official Dedication and Service to the Special Education Community.

Spirit of Septo of Bristol

Charter Oak Financial and Insurance Agency nominated Donna for the work FOCUS does and was presented a plaque at a ceremony at the Rock Cats Stadium in New Britain.

Not content to rest on their laurels, Donna and Fred opened the Fresh Start School in 2016 to provide a full time, state approved special education program for adolescents.

“It has been a dream of ours for many years and we are so grateful to see it come to life!” exclaims Donna. “In the near future we hope to move to a larger and more functional building in order to serve up to 25-30 students.”

Donna further hopes the Fresh Start School will become a model educational program for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder on the national level.

Donna and Fred credit their amazing staff of over 60 employees for the program’s success. All of the clinical staff have a Master’s degree in social work and the Director has a sixth year degree in Administration. Both teachers are dual-certified in special education. Two of the three nurses are APRNs. Teacher Assistants have Bachelor’s degrees.  A number of them have been employed since FOCUS opened and many have worked there for over 10 years.

“We have less turnover than many nonprofit programs because we treat employees like family,” explained Donna, “And they in turn give their heart and soul to FOCUS just like Fred and I do. We do whatever it takes to help a child.”

Examples of their dedication are hosting group home residents at their house on Christmas Eve, Easter and weekends, as well as holding the Center’s Summer Program at their home each week. Attendees can be as many as 30 people including staff.

“FOCUS has been a labor of love for Fred and me,” concludes Donna. “Together we have made a commitment to help create a continuum of care for individuals on the Autism Spectrum one baby step at a time.”

Families who are interested in learning more about the FOCUS Center for Autism and enrollment in the Fresh Start School can call to make an appointment to arrange a tour.

Since 2000, the nonprofit FOCUS Center for Autism in Canton has been dedicated to helping children and young adults with autism spectrum and other related disorders achieve their full potential. FOCUS has developed a well-respected model of care that has now served over 800 children and families.

The FOCUS Fresh Start School is a private, state approved special education program offering children with autism spectrum disorder a quality education experience that addresses their academic, clinical and social needs.

For more information visit www.focuscenterforautism.org or call (860) 693-8809.

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