DOWNERS GROVE – Rehan Tariq began volunteering at Charlie's Gift Autism Center this May to prepare for a possible career in occupational therapy, but he said it quickly became more than just a place to prepare for his future.
The center provides physical and occupational therapy, but also behavioral therapy and several other services to children with autism spectrum disorder and their families.
Tariq assists Occupational Therapist Stacy Haatvedt two days a week, doing anything from filing paper work to helping a child learn how to dribble a ball.
Often times children who come to Charlie's Gift Autism Center can be reluctant to open up to new people, and Tariq said the atmosphere at the workplace gives the chance for those personal connections to develop more quickly with the children.
"I feel like Charlie's Gift gives that opportunity where you're like family," he said. "You can be yourself and we'll work with you and understand just what to do."
He said like children without developmental disabilities, children on the autism spectrum often just need someone to give them a nudge in the right direction.
"You just need to push them a little bit so they know their ability is there, they just have to fulfill it," he said. "It's really rewarding."
Tariq, 22, of Downers Grove, graduated from UIC with a psychology degree this spring and hopes to return there for graduate school, he said. If he stays in the area for grad school, he plans to keep coming to Charlie's Gift as often as he can.
Charlie's Gift Director of Clinical Services Kathy Ruffulo said the not-for-profit is looking for more dedicated volunteers like Tariq this summer as it continues an expanded roster of Saturday morning activities geared towards children with autism and their siblings, called Sib Shop, at the Community House in Hinsdale.
She said volunteers are also needed for a horseback riding activity for families with the Ray Graham Association.
"We couldn't do what we do without them," she said. "When families come to Charlie's gift for therapy, we bill their insurance for that, but that doesn't begin to cover the costs of the center."
Ruffulo explained that Charlie's Gift sets itself apart from other autism centers by not only offering speech clinics, occupational therapy and and social and motor skills development, but also behavioral therapy, and services for the family as a whole.
"We focus on the behavioral piece, and mood disorders and anxiety that go along with having autism," she said. "As well as building social opportunities, and building those social skills."
About Charlie's Gift Autism Center, 1048 W. Ogden Ave., Suite 100
To inquire about volunteer activities, call 630-810-1200
Charlies Gift is a program of The Community House, www.thecommunityhouse.org