When Kelly Weaver adopted her daughter, Gillian, in 1998, she had no idea she eventually would co-found a school for children with autism.
Today, she is the executive director of the Alexander Leigh Center for Autism in Crystal Lake.
At first, Gillian was hitting all her milestones, Weaver said. However, at 15 months, Weaver noticed Gillian was falling behind other children in her playgroups. It wasn’t until 2000 that Gillian, who now is 16, was diagnosed with regressive autism.
“By the time she was 2, we had a formal diagnosis,” said Weaver, 51.
Weaver and her husband, Kevin, then researched and created a support system for their daughter.
“We developed a program in our home and did some homeschooling,” Weaver said.
Unexpected challenges arose. Weaver was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001. About two years later, Kevin was diagnosed with brain cancer.
“On top of that, my mom, who was my rock, had a massive stroke in March 2004,” Weaver said.
Four months later, Kevin died.
“There were some really crazy, taxing times,” she said.
Initially, Gillian had been enrolled in the local school district’s early childhood classes.
“The public school wasn’t a good match for Gillian,” Weaver said of pulling her out after three years.
Weaver had become acquainted with another mother, Dorie Hoevel, with an autistic son who was in Gillian’s playgroup.
They shared a one-to-one instructor, who recognized that the mothers shared similar frustrations about the education system.
“[The instructor] said, ‘Why don’t you two sit down and talk this out because you both keep saying the same thing,” Weaver said.
The women met for Chinese food and talked about how they might better serve their autistic children.
“At the end of dinner we said, ‘Want to open a school?’ ” Weaver said.
They spent the next year researching schools. They formed an advisory board. They did a mock building to get an idea of the costs.
“The school was really born out of two moms that really wanted more for their kids and figured out how to do it,” Weaver said.
The Alexander Leigh Center for Autism is named after their children; Alexander is the middle name of Hoevel’s son and Leigh is Gillian’s.
The nonprofit center first opened as a clinic in Weaver’s home and moved in 2007 to a 2,500-square-foot space in Lake in the Hills.
In 2008, the Illinois State Board of Education approved it as a school.
“It was kind of like writing your thesis … and then defending it,” Weaver said of the process.
Then the growth really started.
“We outgrew it very quickly,” Weaver said.
After the center doubled in size, even more growth prompted a move to Crystal Lake, where the center has been for the past 3½ years.
“This summer we maxed out, and so we moved our administrative office,” Weaver said of the center that employs 74 and serves 37 children ages 3 to 18.
In the next year, Weaver hopes to find a 35,000-square-foot location to accommodate up to 65 children and at least 110 employees.
“We would like to see autism rates dissipate,” Weaver said. “But [they’re] not, so the next best thing is to create an environment where we can help kids and their parents.”
These days, Gillian is thriving.
“She’s getting fiercely independent, which is very cool,” Weaver said.
With that comes Weaver’s desire to expand the center’s focus.
“My long-term plan is to continue the school of excellence that we have and continue to develop programs, but really work on the job market for our kids and their housing,” she said.
No doubt that goal will be reached, just as the others have.
“I’m just a person … continuing to work on my goals,” Weaver said. “I’m just a mom. I don’t have a teaching degree. I was given this child and along with her came autism and along with that came a school.”