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Rep. McKinley pays visit to Augusta Levy Learning Center

Photo by Eric Ayres U.S. Rep. David McKinley visited Augusta Levy Learning Center this week in Wheeling, taking a tour of the facility with Executive Director Angela Wood and visiting with young clients and caregivers.

WHEELING — Administrators at the Augusta Levy Learning Center told U.S. Rep. David McKinley on Wednesday that their waiting list of children in need of their services is typically 100 to 150 names long.

And other professional centers providing care and instruction for children with autism are usually in the same boat, they indicated.

The overwhelming need for Board Certified Behavioral Analysts is contributing to the backlog for available services, and the dwindling number of colleges and universities that offer the master’s level BCBA program has made the problem even more complicated.

McKinley, R-W.Va., noted that he is no stranger to the struggles of autism caregivers, as his 15-year-old grandson Maxwell has autism. He is also blind, deaf and doesn’t speak more than 15-20 words.

“He talks with his eyes,” McKinley said.

Before his grandson came into the Wheeling native’s life and opened his eyes to a world that not many other people see, McKinley said he was not aware of the needs of those with autism and the people who work so hard to provide a good future for those affected by it. McKinley said in the 1980s, some legislation may have come up about autism, and he probably had no insight into how lawmakers could help.

“Nothing is going to slip past me now in Congress,” he vowed. “I’m looking to see, what role can we play — what can we do?”

McKinley said he can also collaborate with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to develop helpful initiatives on the state level, as well.

“I don’t think enough people know about what you’re doing, and I struggle with the fact that you’re not funded properly,” McKinley told administrators at Augusta Levy.

“We struggle with that, too,” Angela Wood, executive director of Augusta Levy Learning Center.

Wood said West Virginia University lost its funding for Board Certified Behavioral Analysts educational courses, and a challenge has become twofold. Not only are there not enough opportunities for supervisors to become certified in West Virginia, but there also are not enough incentives to keep certified professionals in the state.

While certified supervisors can earn around $45,000 per year at facilities in West Virginia, they often leave to find jobs in the same field paying $80,000 to $90,000 in neighboring states, officials said.

“We can help people with their education,” McKinley said. “If we can identify where the shortages are and where the needs are, we’re trying to incentivize it — for people going to that field by forgiving the debt for their education.”

McKinley said a bipartisan effort is presently moving forward for special needs doctors that are desperately needed in certain locations.

“The definition is: if they practice in rural areas that are underserved, we will forgive up to $250,000 of their education debt, if they stay here for six years,” McKinley said.

“That would be wonderful,” said Wood. “That’s what we want to do here.”

Augusta Levy Learning Center Clinical Director Haley Rauschenberg said a lot of BCBAs get their certification online. Training is also being performed in-house at Augusta Levy.

“We’re trying to create more jobs, and we’re trying to support our staff,” Wood said. “It’s just hard when you don’t have the funding.”

Much of the services provided by facilities like Augusta Levy are one-on-one, so the ratio of certified staff compared to the number of children who need services is incredibly disproportionate. But the level of services provided by Augusta Levy draws people from across the country.

“This might sound very egocentric, but I think that we are the standard of care in the country, and I think that we’re the standard of how you support your employees,” Wood said, noting that it was no secret that there is a “high burnout rate” among the professionals who work in this challenging yet rewarding field.

Officials said if funding could be provided to help provide education and training for BCBAs, centers could partner with local institutions of higher learning on developing programs in areas where services are provided. For example, if a program could be developed at West Liberty University, students graduating from the program could work directly with Augusta Levy Learning Center.

McKinley noted that the center also needs to look ahead and work with programs that care for adults with autism and collaborate on that transitional period. Augusta Levy initially worked with young children up to the age of 8 from across the autism spectrum with a systematic approach to behavior analysis and learning opportunities.

“Now we have four early intervention classrooms, three pre-adolescent classrooms, and we’re looking to go into adolescent services,” Wood said. “We designed our building specifically for our children’s needs.”

The Augusta Levy Learning Center was devastated by fire in 2018 and has since been not only rebuilding but looking ahead to expanding services, continuing its “From Ashes to Bricks” capital campaign. The new center that opened in January of this year added 20 new jobs.

While the center can serve more clients than it did in the past, there is still a tremendous need for more staff members. Until those needs can be met, children on the waiting list do just that — sit at home and wait while parents care for them.

“I’d like to talk more about it to give people hope and confidence in what there is here,” he said, noting that he hoped to become a “missionary” for their cause.

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