Giant Steps—Serving the Needs of Families and Children with Autism

September 2015 View more

Bridget O’Connor, President and CEO

Bridget O’Connor, President and CEO

For some of us, love at first sight isn’t about another person, it’s about a place. Or, in the case of Bridget O’Connor, it’s about Giant Steps in Lisle and the children with autism and their families her organization serves. “I fell in love with the students on my very first visit,” O’Connor recalls. “They have an amazing way of stealing your heart and after 15 years, they still haven’t given it back. Once I came to work here, I saw the limitless potential not only of the students but the organization and I was hooked,” said O’Connor. And in those 15 years, she has seen it evolve and grow.

O’Connor, who is president and CEO of this nonprofit, oversees its therapeutic day school and the myriad of services provided by more than 250 employees and volunteers to enrich the lives of families and their children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Active Learning

To the first-time visitor, the level of activity filling the 72,800 square foot building might seem surprising. Through the use of indoor swings, roller skates, wagons, bikes, scooters, or therapeutic colorful toys, these active students are better able to learn. In addition to the day school, Giant Steps’ Autism Training Center provides training and personalized counseling for the families touched by autism, as well as numerous therapies, creative recreational programs to compliment their education curriculum, and indispensable life-skills training.

“More than anything, the spirit at Giant Steps is essentially about addressing the individual person and helping them flourish in every aspect of their life. These kids are so amazing,” said O’Connor. “Most are significantly challenged, but people can forget they have normal kid traits such as humor, the need to belong, and the need for self-esteem. More than the academic, it is the social piece I want to make easier and Giant Steps is the perfect place to melt together what those with ASD need,” said O’Connor.

Far-Reaching Benefits

From her glass-walled office, O’Connor sees the impact her staff and students have on one another everyday. One student’s story in particular was life-changing for O’Connor. She vividly recalls the day she received a call from a boy’s struggling single mother.
“I could hear in her voice she had nothing left. Her son was significantly impaired and she was just trying to survive. One day, she finally called the police and DCFS, and I was speechless. How did it get so bad?” said O’Connor.

Thankfully, the story has a happy ending. The father, previously estranged, took responsibility to care for his son but needed help. For weeks, a team of teachers and therapists stayed each night after work to teach him how to care for his son. “It was intensive training to train a father to keep his son,” O’Connor says. “It was a coming together of our community and the father and the mother who took two years to rejuvenate enough to come back into his life. I see him everyday, now. What 250 employees do everyday never ceases to amaze me.”

Giant Steps, made possible through the generous help of donations and volunteers, will be hosting a walk at Rich Harvest Farms in October. This family-friendly event will be an opportunity to learn more about their work and to raise support for a new visionary project, CANOPY, a respite care, job-training and residential community for adults on the spectrum.

“Making a difference is one of the best things Giant Steps ever gave me,” O’Connor admits. “I look at others who can’t wait to retire and I think how fortunate I am in that respect. I love coming to work.”

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Photo by Robyn Sheldon