Periodically, we like to raise awareness of local causes. This time, we are highlighting a very inspiring project that partially originated in Seattle: Autism Compassion Africa (ACA). We think ACA is a very inspiring nonprofit organization for the following reasons:
ACA was founded by two powerful, young female leaders and dear friends from the Pacific Northwest: Colleen Alabi and Whitney Anny. Whitney has a Masters Degree in Severe Special Needs Education and over a decade of experience working in the field of autism with experience working in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, India, and Ghana. Colleen has a Masters Degree in International Studies, African Studies, and a Certificate in Global Health. She has a ten-year track record of work in nonprofit development, community organizing, and program design in the United States, Ghana, Uganda, and Nigeria. Her experience includes the launch of several successful nonprofits, the most notable of which is Mother Africa, a Washington State organization that supports immigrant and refugee women and families from Africa to adapt and feel welcomed in their new home.
Global Leadership & Stewardship
At the time ACA was created, Whitney and Colleen were living on opposite sides of the globe: Colleen in Seattle and Whitney in India. Committed to working on a project together, they merged Colleen’s knowledge of nonprofit management and West African culture with Whitney’s understanding of autism services and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), to impact people in a third location: the coastal town of Cape Coast in Ghana. The work aimed to fill what was a large void in the availability of services and education available to children living with autism and their families in Ghana.
Having a child with autism in the Western World is challenging to say the least, due in part to the unique characteristics of each individual child. Having a child with autism in Africa has a completely different impact on the individual, their parents, families and communities, both because of a lack of services but also a lack of awareness and understanding of what autism is. Early intervention has been proven to drastically increase the outcomes of individuals with autism, thus being diagnosed early on and receiving services plays an integral role in the life of a child with autism.
Prior to Whitney and Collen’s foundation of ACA, most autistic children in Ghana did not have access to school or any type of learning support services. There are still many misconceptions and stigmas associated with children with autism. Therefore, community education and campaigns are a key pillar of ACA’s work. For example, sometimes such a child is believed to be a cure, or even a witch or wizard. Sometimes people hold the faulty belief that autism is a contagious disease. Due to such misunderstandings, many children with autism in this region are regularly hidden away from the community in the back of homes or are sent away. In some extreme cases, these concerns can lead to a termination of life, as they are perceived to be children possessed by demons. ACA is out to impact these stigmas and create a better quality of life to allow these children to grow and thrive in their communities.
ACA provides a school as well as training throughout the Ghana and the larger region of West Africa. The school was opened in October 2017 and currently accommodates 14 students at the school and an additional 14 students through outside consulting at a one-to-one ratio of student to teacher—there are even more children on waiting lists. Through the school, ACA provides breakthroughs for children with autism and their communities in Ghana through the application of evidence-based Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. In addition, they provide ABA training for staff, families and the community; supervision; and promote autism awareness across the country and region.
ACA envisions a social system that provides support for all children with autism in Ghana so that their families can thrive and the child can achieve increased independence to lead a meaningful life as a member of the greater social community. ACA is committed to bringing the best knowledge, education, and resources available about autism to children, families, and communities in Ghana and West Africa.
Whitney now residents in Ghana and provides management, teacher training, and—more than occasionally—serves as the plumber and handyman at the school. She and Akanksha Chhettri (who was hired by ACA and moved from India to Ghana) are two of only three Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) in West Africa, an area almost the size of the United States. For reference, there are 780 BCBAs in Washington State alone! To build sustainability, ACA sponsors their staff so they may attend online courses through the Florida Institute of Technology to become BCaBAs and BCBAs. They have three staff in Ghana and two staff in Nigeria that started their coursework this month!
Teaching children with autism is labor intensive and has a high cost to run the service, as the best practice of ABA services requires that each student has their own behavior technician/teacher. To sustain that model, ACA’s biggest need for fundraising is service cost, to help continue to pay for the teachers’ salaries to serve the students. ACA runs a nonprofit charity model, where families pay school fees on a sliding scale based on their income, so that no child is ever left out due to financial reasons. The equity model means that some families pay anywhere from $2 to $60 per month, while the true cost of running the program for each child is $400 per month. This is where support makes a huge difference!
The school currently has a waiting list and demand on ACA for local, national and regional advice regarding the subject is great. In the future, ACA hopes to expand their services to other regions in Ghana as well as neighboring countries.
Colleen and Whitney would like to expand their services—in part—through fundraising in the Pacific Northwest. We invite you to research this extraordinary organization and contribute to it if you can with donations and/or time. What a wonderful way to demonstrate our commitment in taking ownership of matters around the globe!
ACA is hosting their Annual Benefit and Auction Event Seattle on June 1st. Tickets may be purchased here. Join ACA for an energizing and engaging afternoon to learn about their work in Ghana and Nigeria, and hear stories from the school. Auction items from the students and region will be available on the silent auction for purchase, with all proceeds going back to the school.
The below podcast features an interview with Whitney, which provided some of the information I outlined in this article:
Thank you for your generosity and kindness in taking the time to read this!
-Written by Enrico Pozzo