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posted: 6/20/2013 9:00 AM

Little Friends' 'Step Up' event benefits autism center

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  • Steph Nowak says her life has been changed by her brother, Tyler, who has learning disabilities. Their relationship has led her to an internship at Little Friends in Naperville and to walk in the Step Up for Autism event Sunday, June 23.

    Steph Nowak says her life has been changed by her brother, Tyler, who has learning disabilities. Their relationship has led her to an internship at Little Friends in Naperville and to walk in the Step Up for Autism event Sunday, June 23.
    Courtesy of Little Friends


Steph Nowak doesn't know who she would be without her brother Tyler, but she knows for certain she would be different.

Without him showing her the way, she might not look for and find the best in others. Without seeing how differently some people respond to him, she might not have developed the empathy that is guiding her career path.

Growing up with a brother who has learning disabilities shaped Steph Nowak's outlook and drew the North Central College student to an internship with Little Friends.

Little Friends, based in Naperville, offers a range of programs to help individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. The Little Friends Center for Autism is a nationally recognized resource for parents and professionals where children can receive diagnostic evaluations as well as speech and occupational therapy, and adults can learn more about supporting those with autism.

Little Friends also operates four education centers. Krejci Academy in Naperville uses small class sizes and individual education plans and therapies to help students ages 4 to 21 with autism and other disabilities learn in an environment that's comfortable for them and develop the skills to live more independently.

Two high schools -- Bridge High School in Downers Grove and The Mansion High School in Naperville -- serve different populations of students between the ages of 14 and 21. At Bridge, students with autism or cognitive disabilities as well as emotional or behavioral disorders receive vocational training to help them transition to adulthood. The Mansion provides a safe atmosphere for teens with emotional disabilities who are unable to function productively in a traditional school setting.

Lifeskills Training Center for Children with Autism is an intensive residential program in Glen Ellyn that focuses on improving children's communication skills.

Little Friends' services continue beyond the school years with programs designed to help adults with developmental disabilities live and work independently in their communities.

Nowak pursued her internship with Little Friends because she'd seen how the program helped her brother. Through the special education program at Naperville Central High School, Tyler took part in the organization's ColorBurst program, a screen printing business that offers vocational training.

To help others, Nowak plans to walk Sunday, June 23, in Little Friends' Step Up for Autism event, which benefits the Little Friends Center for Autism. Today she tells us more about how her brother has shaped her life.

Steph Nowak

I am a junior at North Central College and I am currently an intern for Little Friends.

When anyone asks me about my dream job, I always say I want to make a difference in someone's life. I found the Little Friends internship through North Central College. I could not believe how perfect a fit this would be for me. I would be learning about a nonprofit organization and helping those with developmental disabilities and autism.

I have a heavy, yet happy heart when it comes to agencies like Little Friends. The work they do -- providing meaningful lives for individuals with disabilities -- is close to my heart. I have an older brother who is learning disabled. His life was hard from the beginning; he was constantly in and out of the hospital or going to speech therapy or physical therapy.

Growing up was much harder for him because he never was given the opportunities that my younger brothers and I had. We would walk down the street and people would stare at him as if he was from another planet.

My parents have always taught me to never judge anyone because we do not walk in their shoes. We do not know their struggles. That has been my motto in life.

My life will forever be changed because of my brother, Tyler. His outlook on life is something I admire. He never has one bad word to say about anyone because he has the special ability to see the positive in people.

When Tyler was a senior at Naperville Central High School, he was given the opportunity to be the varsity basketball manager. The last regular season game was at home and it was also Senior Night. The coach suited him up in a uniform and Tyler sat on the bench hoping that at some point he would be given the chance to get in the game.

The fourth quarter rolled around and with a few minutes left in the game the crowd began chanting, "Put in Tyler!" With 30 seconds left, the coach put Tyler in. The other team backed off and Tyler was given the chance to shoot a basket.

His first two shots fell short, but the last one went in as the buzzer went off! It was a day he will never forget. It was a moment I will never forget.

Little Friends focuses on getting children and adults with disabilities to live, work and participate in their community. Everything Little Friends does is to raise awareness and to help provide a better life for children and adults with challenges.

I want to make a difference in one person's life through Little Friends. At the end of the day, many people made a difference in Tyler's life.

I am so lucky to have Tyler in my life and I walk for him and many more like him.

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