GWR Sunshine Foundation hires executive director

picture disc.
Mark Hirschfeld
With 15 years of experience as a senior adviser to a management consulting firm, Mark Hirschfeld was an obvious choice for the new executive director position at the GWR Sunshine Foundation, an organization dedicated to autism awareness.

But the husband and father of two from Omaha also has a personal connection to the cause. His son, Jacob, has autism.

On March 15, 1999, Hirschfeld and his wife Nancy were told by a doctor in Iowa City, Iowa, to "prepare to institutionalize" 4-year-old Jacob as there was only a one in 20 percent chance that he would be mainstreamed later in life.

The news was harsh, but Hirschfeld agreed that at the time it was accurate. Whenever the Hirschfelds would go out to eat, they would bring two cars. One parent would take Jacob home if he had a violent episode and then at least the other could finish his or her meal in peace.

Because there was no Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at UNMC's Munroe-Meyer Institute then, Nancy began to search for therapy programs out of state.

In April of 1999, she discovered a place in Madison, Wis., and by June had moved there with her two children. Hirschfeld stayed behind to continue providing for the family.

Fast forward eight years. Jacob is 12-years-old and no longer non-communicative and anti-social. He's active in karate and band and enjoys just being one of the kids.

"As soon as he could communicate his basic needs, the violent behavior went away," Hirschfeld said. "He still has needs but being institutionalized is a far cry for him now.

"The word miracle is overused, but this is miraculous."

Early intervention was essential to helping the Hirschfeld's son and is a major focus of the GWR Sunshine Foundation, founded by Omaha's Gail Werner-Robertson and her husband, Scott, in 2000. The couple has two sons on the autism spectrum.

The GWR Sunshine Foundation has invested in scholarships for children to attend autism clinics at the Munroe-Meyer Institute, as health insurance policies typically don't cover such programs, some of which can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 per year.

The foundation also has contributed to the MMI recreation therapy program, which works in conjunction with two school districts in the area to provide social skills programs for middle and high school students with disabilities. The foundation recently launched a new program with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Barkley Center for teacher training to expand the program to more school districts.

"Our goal is to provide resources that support individuals with autism across the state throughout their cycle of life," Hirschfeld said.

With the assistance of Easter Seals, the foundation has offered summer camps for children with developmental disabilities, which in turn provide much-needed respite for moms and dads. Drama classes at the Rose Theatre in Omaha also have been available for children and young adults with autism to improve their communication skills, along with companion classes for siblings of those with disabilities.

"My wife and I came to the conclusion that there could be a way to take the skills we've honed in the business world and apply them to help families who have children with disabilities on their journey. We understand their journey; we're on it."

Mark Hirschfeld

As the foundation evolves to become a full public charity, it will strive to develop programs to combat the profound challenges that adults with disabilities face, such as vocation and residence.

By visiting similar programs around the country and establishing a dialogue with other successful agencies and non-profits, the foundation hopes to build a stronger organization.

"We don't necessarily have to recreate the wheel, but gain some insight," Hirschfeld said. "We want to continue to build on the success of our partnerships not only with MMI, but also with other organizations that have the resources and skills."

Using the analogy of a mountain hike, Hirschfeld said the foundation has currently established a base camp and is looking for people to climb with.

Before taking the job as executive director, Hirschfeld was perfectly happy just volunteering with the GWR Sunshine Foundation. However, after much consideration, he and his wife decided that they had a vested interest in helping those with developmental disabilities and decided to take the next step.

"My wife and I came to the conclusion that there could be a way to take the skills we've honed in the business world and apply them to help families who have children with disabilities on their journey," Hirschfeld said. "We understand their journey; we're on it. This indeed is a great calling."