Gift from Stern Family Seeds UVA Center for Autism

Lynn Bell Pechuekonis

stern_overlay.jpgAn inaugural $150,000 gift to the Curry School Foundation’s Autism Pathways Fund from Sandra (Ed.D. '85 Admin & Supv) and Evan Stern will jumpstart efforts already underway to establish a University of Virginia Center for Autism.  As envisioned, the Center for Autism will combine the University’s considerable resources in autism research, coordinated care, and teacher and clinical professional preparation, positioning UVA as a national leader. This effort, led by the Curry School, will significantly impact the increasing U.S. population of people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder by providing research-based medical and educational breakthroughs.

Mrs. Stern, a Curry School alumna with an education doctorate, has been an ardent supporter of the School for more than three decades. Firsthand connections with people affected by autism, however, are what most attracted the Sterns’ investment in the pan-University initiative.

As a child, Mrs. Stern remembers meeting a neighbor with autism who was isolated at home. The incident had a strong emotional impact on her. “There was nothing available for him other than what his parents could provide him in their home,” she remembers. She learned more about autism and options for families years later when her sister began working as a teaching assistant in a preschool for autistic children.

Even closer to home, about a decade ago Mr. Stern’s grandson was diagnosed with autism. They have since learned about the enormous costs of his special education and care and have witnessed the struggle to find environments in which he can thrive socially and academically.

“Then, I heard about the idea of creating an autism center at UVA,” Mrs. Stern said. “That just resonated with me because of these experiences over my whole life.”

Mrs. Stern attended last April’s Autism Symposium at UVA, which brought together autism experts from a variety of disciplines across the University and in the Charlottesville community. After seeing these powerful networks being established on behalf of individuals affected by autism, the Sterns decided they were ready to invest in the Autism Pathways Fund, which supports the Center for Autism initiative.

“We hope the gift will serve as a clarion call for more donors to step forward and show their belief in this concept and carry it forward,” Mrs. Stern said. She has also committed to raise a matching amount from her network of family and friends. “I don’t think anyone who has been personally influenced by or has observed autism’s effects can be unmoved to help in some way,” she explains.

Matthew_overlay.jpgThe Curry School is leading this project because of its close work with professionals serving individuals on the autism spectrum. Curry prepares professionals to serve individuals with autism in four key areas—special education, speech communication disorders, clinical psychology and kinesiology (the science of human movement). At least 36 other faculty members across UVA pursue autism-related research and service, including scientists at the UVA Brain Institute, and the UVA Children’s Hospital Department of Developmental Pediatrics sees about 2,000 patients annually to diagnose or treat autism.

“By pulling together the resources and expertise that sits at this University to tackle a challenge like autism, we have the potential to make the kind of change that will be felt across this country and potentially across the globe on a problem that's increasingly challenging for people,” says Bob Pianta, dean of the Curry School.

The Autism Pathways Fund, which provides seed money for establishing the UVA Center for Autism, has a Phase 1 goal of $6 million. The Stern’s gift to the fund will be used to support research, teaching programs, training opportunities, and capacity-building activity at the Curry School related to autism spectrum disorders.

 “The Autism project brings the very best of UVA thought leaders to a confounding societal problem,” said Gerald Starsia, executive director of the Curry School of Education Foundation. “Sandra and Evan have been incredibly generous to Curry and have been unwavering and exemplar leaders of the community. Sandra has stepped up and taken a leadership role in supporting this project. I am both humbled and inspired by their commitment and courage. I hope others will follow their example and join in this work.”

Mrs. Stern served on the Curry School Foundation board of directors from 2003-2017 and is the immediate past chair of the board after serving for two consecutive terms. In April, she was recognized for her extraordinary service to the Curry School by being named the first emeritus member of the Foundation Board.