No longer locked inside: Dylan Chatham gets critical help from Naples Children and Education Foundation

Dylan Chatham, 4, right, plays during free time with at Able Academy in East Naples. Jay Chatham brought his son, Dylan, to Able Academy after Dylan's teachers in Montessori school noticed he was not playing with students, etc. His parents have said their son has 'changed overnight' since enrolling in the Able Academy's clinical classroom program. But, at a cost of $2,500 to $4,500 per month for services, the program was out of Chatham's reach. The Naples Children and Education Foundation, the philanthrophic arm of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, provides Able Academy with money to provide scholarships to students who need the services. Dylan is one of those recipients. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

Dylan Chatham, 4, right, plays during free time with at Able Academy in East Naples. Jay Chatham brought his son, Dylan, to Able Academy after Dylan's teachers in Montessori school noticed he was not playing with students, etc. His parents have said their son has "changed overnight" since enrolling in the Able Academy's clinical classroom program. But, at a cost of $2,500 to $4,500 per month for services, the program was out of Chatham's reach. The Naples Children and Education Foundation, the philanthrophic arm of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, provides Able Academy with money to provide scholarships to students who need the services. Dylan is one of those recipients. Lexey Swall/Staff

— Not long ago, four-year-old Dylan Chatham would sit alone during playtime at school.

He wouldn’t play with the other kids. He wouldn’t make eye contact with his parents. He wouldn’t talk, preferring to drag someone to what he wanted rather than communicate.

“It was scary more than anything,” said Dylan’s father, Jay Chatham. “To not be able to communicate with your child, it’s frightening.”

Officials at the Montessori school Dylan was attending told his parents that their school might not be the place for their little boy. They suggested that his parents consider enrolling him in the clinical classroom program at the ABLE Academy.

Fast forward a year. Dylan greets visitors who come into his classroom and makes eye contact. He plays with his friends in class and leads them in discussions with the help of a puppet.

“I can’t keep him quiet now,” Chatham says with a smile. “It has opened doors to him, challenged him. Within a week of being here, he was communicating. They are gifted at what they do.”

Working with behaviors

Founded in 1996 and currently located in Golden Gate, the Applied Behavioral Learning Enterprises (ABLE) Academy provides assessment; individual and group intervention to children, adolescents, and adults; parent and staff training; program development; and consultation to organizations nation-wide.

Colleen Cornwall, the clinical director at ABLE Academy, said the Academy started in a rented hair salon with three staff members and three children when it opened its doors in 2005. Today, there are 13 staff members assisting 42 children in the clinical classroom program, and more who participate in assessments or other services offered by ABLE. The program serves children and adults with everything from learning disabilities and autism to attention deficit disorder and Down syndrome.

“What we do, we do with precision and integrity,” Cornwall said. “Our belief is that the environment impacts behavior and reinforcements can impact behavior.”

Chatham admits he was skeptical of ABLE Academy at first. He brought his father, a retired educator, to check out the program.

“I knew my dad would pick the school apart if there were problems,” he said. “But he liked what he heard.”

Chatham admits he liked what he saw when he began bringing Dylan to the program.

“They would text me at work about things that he had done. What other place would do that?” he asked. “Dylan wasn’t able to speak, and one day I got a photo of him guiding the class with a puppet and talking. ... They get the job done.”

A goal: school

Jennifer Schaaff, Dyan’s teacher and behavior analyst, said she has seen the boy come leaps and bounds since he came to the program.

“I think he is much happier. I see a happier little boy,” she said. “He can sit for 30 minutes for a lesson. He can make requests in full sentences.”

Schaaff said her goal is for Dylan to be able to enroll in a kindergarten classroom and be successful.

“I want him to have friends, to communicate,” she said.

But the kind of progress Dylan has been making comes at a high price. At $2,500 to $4,500 a month for the clinical classroom program, Chatham admits the program was initially out of his reach, especially for the number of years Dylan would need to be in the program.

“I didn’t expect to be funding what is the price a college education for a four-year-old,” he said. “I mean, it is a mortgage payment.”

That’s where the Naples Children and Education Foundation comes in. Though money raised by the Naples Winter Wine Festival, the charity provides grants to organizations like the ABLE Academy.

ABLE Academy used a portion of its $125,000 grant in 2009 to provide funding help parents like Chatham.

“Without the Wine Festival, it would be impossible for Dylan to come here,” Chatham said. “I looked into a loan before we got the scholarship, but it wouldn’t have covered all of the treatment he needs.”

Broadening ‘the club’

This is the second year ABLE Academy has been a recipient of grants from the Naples Children and Education Foundation, which itself is funded by the Naples Winter Wine Festival. The 11th annual festival begins Friday. The proceeds from the three-day event, which includes lavish dinners and concludes with an auction, go to benefit local charities that work to improve the lives of children. Since its inception in 2001, the Naples Winter Wine Festival has raised more than $82.5 million for children in need.

“The money provides scholarships and offsets costs for families who demonstrate a financial need,” said Cornwall. “It purchases time with a speech-language pathologist for some of the children. It does a variety of things.”

Chatham said the Naples Children and Education Fund has given him the opportunity to communicate with his son.

“Do you know what a blessing it is to be able to communicate with your child? And because I can communicate with him, we don’t have as many tantrums. They went to almost nothing,” he said.

“What they do is make it possible for children to be in a program like this. It is not something a working class person like me would be able to do.”

If Chatham could send a message to those attending the Naples Winter Wine Festival this weekend, he would tell them to bid high and bid often.

“My biggest fear is that we will have to stop this too early. It’s too hard to play catch-up, especially if the child is delayed to begin with,” he said. “These ladies, they put their heart and souls into it. It is their passion. And my son, he is excited to come here. He liked school before, but he runs in here.”

But perhaps the biggest strides Dylan has made involve his beloved airplanes.

“He lets me fly his jets with him,” Chatham said. “It is a lot of fun to be able to enter my child’s world. Before, it was ‘members only.’ ”

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