A Center Grove mother looks to empower and enhance the lives of young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities by opening a unique boutique
By Jeremy Dunn
When Jennifer Parker’s son, Alex, was 18 months old, he was diagnosed with autism. Wanting to better understand her son’s diagnosis and raise awareness to (what was at the time) this little known disorder, Parker founded Autism Advocates of Indiana. The Center Grove mother of five recalled, “Twenty years ago, there was little knowledge about autism. My only reference was the movie Rain Man. Now everyone knows about autism and most likely has someone that they love affected by it.”
The organization Autism Speaks defines autism spectrum disorder as a “range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.” For the ’92 Butler graduate and her husband, Andrew, this meant finding the best ways to support, raise and guide Alex as he lived with this disorder. While difficult at times, the couple embraced the challenge. However, nothing could prepare them for the next chapter as parents.
The miracle of Hope
More than 11 years ago, the Parkers added a daughter, fittingly named Hope, to their family but this blessing did not come without adversity. Hope was born with a severe congenital heart defect, a hypoplastic left ventricle. In essence, she was born with half of a heart and a terrifyingly grim prognosis. Jennifer and Andrew could only pray as their daughter endured 17 surgeries (four of them being open heart procedures), was a failure to thrive, became the victim of an assault, was nearly strangled by her oxygen tubing and had a stroke. Among the nightmare of challenges she faced, Hope has miraculously survived but is unable to speak or use sign language.
Even with communication struggles, the Parkers quickly noticed their daughter’s love for interacting with others. “She is full of hope. She is crazy about living life and insists that we interact with everyone we see. She loves life. Even when it is hard, difficult and incredibly frustrating for her,” Jennifer said. Inspired by her daughter, the loving mother even wrote a book about Hope’s journey, entitled Messy Blessings.
Forming a future
Four years ago, as Alex was reaching the conclusion of his teenage years, Jennifer and Andrew quickly realized the hardships that their son and others with various disabilities are set to face as adults. “My husband and I realized that once these kids graduate from high school, there are very few resources available for them. The reality for many young adults with developmental disabilities after they age out is that they have nowhere to go, nothing to do and very little interaction with their community. Their days are filled with TV, computer and video games,” Jennifer said.
In 2014, wanting to give more opportunities to their son and his best friend, Ali Callahan, the Parkers formed the Alex & Ali Foundation, a lovingly-named 501C3 with a mission of empowering and enhancing the lives of young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities by providing opportunities for job skill development, vocational activities and meaningful community involvement. Jennifer added, “Alex and Ali represent a population of young adults that have much to offer our community if they have a safe and supportive venue and training. These young adults want to work, volunteer and interact within their community. They have value.”
The vision of the Alex & Ali Foundation will soon become a reality, as the group prepares to open The Hope Gallery later this month in downtown Bargersville. This boutique-style venue, fitting named after their daughter, will allow Alex, Ali and several other young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities the opportunity to assist in running a business with help from respite workers, buddies, volunteers and job coaches. These youth will have valuable job skills such as sales, customer interaction, transaction processing, maintenance and stocking shelves.
Using the tagline “Wonderfully Made/Perfectly Unique,” the foundation hopes to cosign art, pottery, glass, jewelry, home and bath products, pet items, specialty food items and clothing from individuals and companies across the country, giving special attention to those that have autism or employ individuals with autism or other disabilities. They also hope to partner with the community to provide training for these individuals to learn IT skills, refinishing furniture, mosaic tile art and other vocational skills.
Most importantly, Alex Parker will serve as the Official Pet Cuddler at The Hope Gallery. Ensuring his passion for animals provides a pet-friendly environment and that all pets receive a warm welcome.
A full heart
The Parker family is no stranger to heartbreaking adversity. Through all the challenges, this family stood firm in their faith and found a way to make the best of each day by constantly striving to love others. Striving to provide opportunities of hope for others, the Parkers are a bright beacon of love in what can be a very dark place. Nothing sums this up better than what visitors to The Hope Gallery will see upon visiting, a prayer box. “The Hope Gallery will have a prayer box where people can drop in prayer requests,” Jennifer said. “There are many things that Hope cannot do, but Hope has asked to pray for others, something she does continually throughout the day. Hope has taught us to make the most of every day that we have here on Earth.” Without a doubt, the Parker family is making the most of each day… not just for themselves, but with a full heart for others.
Interested in volunteering with The Hope Gallery? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the Alex & Ali Foundation, check out alexandalifoundation.com.
Information about The Hope Gallery: 74 N Main St., Bargersville. Opens June 20 (with a grand opening in late July). Store hours: Wednesdays, noon – 7 p.m., Thursday/Friday/Saturday, noon – 6 p.m.
Getting to know Jen Parker
- What would you say is your greatest accomplishment? My greatest accomplishment is my marriage. Andy and I have had many, many challenges, obstacles and difficulties from the moment we got married. Statistically, there is no chance that we should still be married. In fact, we would have a better chance of winning the lottery – the big lottery. Our life is messy, it hasn’t been easy and we make mistakes along the way but we are in this together. Throughout our marriage – even during the craziest times, we have been very intentional about taking time for each other and that has made all the difference.
- Who is your greatest inspiration? My greatest inspiration is Jesus Christ. I want to see people like He sees them: love people like He does and make this world a better place for all people – especially those that are hurting and whose lives are messy.
- If you had to listen to only one album for a year, what would you choose? Well, I have been listening to one CD for a year – but not by choice. Hope and Alex both like one kids’ songs CD that makes me want to lose my mind. It continually plays in my car. It may have to become broken soon.
- What advice would you give to young parents? Take care of your marriage first – kids second. Even when the kids are critically ill, chronically ill, making poor choices, etc.
- What would be your perfect day? I have stopped dreaming about my perfect day. Instead, I have been making a conscious effort to focus on the blessings throughout each day. Quite a few years ago I began keeping a journal of one different thing I was thankful for each day. It has genuinely helped me become more thankful for all that I do have, even when my child is in the Intensive Care Unit. I have had a lot of difficult, dark days but I have realized that there is truly always something to be thankful for.
Meet the artist: Jimmy Kiefel
Jimmy Kiefel is one of the artists on the autism spectrum that The Hope Gallery will feature in their boutique. He is 18 years old and has lived in Indiana since 2011. The young artist works with felt tip pens and acrylic paints on paper, creating collages with the use of hand-made stencils, monoprint and block printing methods. Kiefel enjoyed selling his artwork at his booth during the 2017 and 2018 Autism Society of Indiana Expo at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. A resident of Carmel, he travels to Fishers each day to participate in a life-skills program while working three days a week at Connor Prairie performing data entry. The gifted artist also works with Agape Therapeutic Horse-riding in Cicero and enjoys reading, journal writing, trains and music from the 70s and 80s.