When her son was less than two years old, Jess Nerren knew something was wrong.
“He was having a tremendous amount of difficulty,” Nerren said. “He was also trying to smash his head against the wall and the floor and every corner he could find and was screaming hysterically – like every waking hour – and doing all this weird activity like lining everything up and just being lost in his own world.”
Her son, Royce, was eventually diagnosed with autism. Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) encompasses an array of brain development disorders, all of which are characterized by varying degrees of difficulty with communication and social interaction.
About 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, and it affects four and a half times as many boys as it does girls, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention
After Royce was diagnosed, Nerren vowed to make a presence and a difference in the autism community, and she has found that opportunity in the local nonprofit, Fullerton Cares.
Nerren began by volunteering as head of the communications committee for the Southern California chapter of Autism Speaks. She worked to raise awareness for the annual Autism Walk in Los Angeles and then went to help with the Orange County Autism Walk. At her first meeting, she met Larry Houser, the founder of Fullerton Cares and fellow parent of a son with autism, and she could tell that their goals were aligned.
“We wanted to give up our free time and remaining sanity to help this effort,” Nerren said. “All those years ago, when you have hard times and you go ‘I want to help make it better for someone else’ and you have that opportunity to do it, it’s spectacular.”
As Fullerton Cares began to grow, so did its events and the number of families it was helping. Aside from providing a number of services to the community, it also partners very closely with the Center for Autism at CSUF.
Erica Howell, another CSUF alumna, serves as the co-director of the center and said that Fullerton Cares has served as an incredible community partner.
“They’re kind of astounding in what they’ve done in a short amount of years,” Howell said. “They basically have mobilized the Fullerton business community and just surrounding citizens of Fullerton to have a focus on equipping and furthering our autism education in Fullerton.”
The community surrounding autism awareness at CSUF extends far beyond the autism center, with several different clubs that often have a presence at Fullerton Cares events.
Vicky Cid is the founder of CSUF’s first autism club–Autism Speaks U.
Now an alumna, Cid teaches a special education kindergarten class and is on the board for Fullerton Cares.
Cid became dedicated to the cause after her nephew was diagnosed with autism.
“I just always wanted to get involved with my community to make sure that he has an easier time going through life by me just helping spread awareness of what autism is and hopefully, helping spread acceptance of autism,” Cid said.
With the help of a donation from Fullerton Cares, she was able to build a sensory garden at Mabel Paine Elementary, the school where she teaches.
A sensory garden is basically what it sounds like. Not only does it have plants that elementary school students can water and tend to, it includes elements to stimulate all five senses, ranging from a xylophone to giant logs for climbing to “mystery sensory boxes,” which kids can put their hands in to feel materials like buttons and beads.
“I just love to see exactly where money is going. Because when you go to these events, you sometimes wonder,” Cid said. But to also see the children and my students using the material every day, it’s even more impactful.”
Building the sensory garden was a testament to how dedicated the community had become to helping do their part, Cid said. With the beginning of the school year drawing near and time running out to complete the garden, Cid turned to Facebook to ask for help with the garden’s construction and received an overwhelming response.
“Just so many people from the community, including so many people from Fullerton Cares who just are simply volunteers donating their time to give back to these kids,” Cid said. “Mind you, it was in the middle of August, with triple digits, and just everyone giving back.”
Nerren brought her son and his friend to help build the garden. She said that its continued upkeep has had some eager children even giving up their lunch period to help take care of the garden.
“The kids who are profoundly affected by autism and the neurotypical students are working side by side,” Nerren said.
The sensory garden is just one of the ways that the organization has brought together members of the community to make a difference. While most of the people involved with Fullerton Cares have a loved one with autism, that isn’t always the case.
“Some people just want to get involved with something that’s meaningful and important. They’ve truly made a change within Fullerton,” Howell said.
Nerren said that it has been inspiring to see the whole community open up and make an effort to understand autism.
“It’s hard to be a parent of a kid with autism,” Nerren said. “Like, there’s no sugarcoating it. It’s hard. But it makes us the people that we are.”
Fullerton Cares hosts events called Coffee Talks, where parents like Nerren, who are affected by autism, can exchange resources and share support. The organization raises money for community projects like these by holding fundraisers throughout the year.
Its upcoming event, Comedy Show for Autism, will feature host Sam Tripoli and headliner Andy Dick, and take place this Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the Fullerton Ballroom. A pre-show reception will start at 5:30 p.m., and the event will go from 7 p.m to 10 p.m. Tickets are available through Eventbrite. Cid said that it is one of the biggest fundraisers of the year.
“The proceeds from this event go not only directly into the classrooms, into the hands of teachers that are teaching directly to the students on the spectrum, but it also goes to other events that make an impact directly into our community,” Cid said.
By contributing money to services that help parents, children and families, Fullerton Cares has become a valuable part of the community for anyone affected by autism.
“I wish every city had this organization,” Howell said.