HENRICO COUNTY, Va. — In her five short years on earth, Audrey Putnam faced great hardships.
“She’s just the happiest little girl ever. She’s a ray of sunshine,” said Katie, Audrey’s mother. “She finds joy in the little things in life, I guess.”
Katie Putnam said her daughter, who struggles with communication, longs to have friends.
“About three years ago she was diagnosed with autism. It was a shock,” Katie said. “We learned a lot and Audrey has progressed beautifully, but we still have daily challenges.”
One of those challenges is fitting in. Most team sports for Audrey are out of the question.
“We did not know where we would be welcomed. It wasn’t easy for us to go out and find,” Katie said.
So Katie and her friends, whose children also have autism, spring into action.
This is how Hope Stars League RVA was born this spring.
“Our children need a little extra help. A little extra support. So a typical football team wouldn’t suit us,” Katie said.
Every Saturday morning, the young players enter the field. In this weekly soccer game, the final score and the rules don’t matter.
For Jill von Herrmann, the new league gives children like her daughter Mary and other parents an outlet.
“There will always be trepidation, but doing it together gives you the strength to be able to do it and we can do it together,” Jill said.
While it all comes down to the field, parents like Ann Kathryn Johnson take their mission seriously.
“They’re just special kids,” Ann Kathryn said. “When you have a young child, and so much hope and you get that diagnosis, it’s devastating. It’s devastating because your lives change instantly.
The three moms are pushing to build an Eliza Hope therapy center in Richmond.
“We want a place where everyone feels happy and joyful and that will be so exciting,” Ann Kathryn said.
Flagship Virginia Beach location offers family support and therapy under one roof.
The center was named after Eliza Hope; a four and a half year old child who lived with autism and died of epilepsy.
“I’m just grateful there are like-minded moms out there who can come together and shake things up,” Ann Kathryn said.
Parents say a central location in Virginia would be a game-changer for children with autism.
“I think it helps parents because they feel less alone in their journey. They feel like their child is part of a community,” said Jill von Herrmann.
Until an Eliza Hope Therapy Center comes up in Richmond, parents and their pint-sized players will meet weekly.
“We found something our kids were missing and found a way to make it work,” Katie said.
To develop as athletes and grow as children. It’s an All-Star team worthy of the World Cup.
“Everyone is a winner on our pitch,” Katie said. “We celebrate everything.”
The Hope Stars League meets every Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. at Longan Elementary School in Henrico. Parents of autistic children are invited to participate and go for the gold.
If you know anyone I should feature in my “Heroes Among Us” segment, email me at [email protected]