MONTGOMERY, Ala. — It was a night of surprise and immense gratitude for Jere Lynn Burkhart as she joined her family on stage at Faulkner University’s Annual Benefit Dinner on October 4 to receive the university’s highest honor.
She was bestowed the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters for her contributions to the development of autism education and her support of Faulkner’s vision for its own autism center.
Over 30 years ago, her grandson was diagnosed with autism and Burkhart made a decision to do everything she could to help him thrive. Burkhart became a pioneer in autism education in an era when autism education and professional services were almost nonexistent.
“Tonight we honor a woman who embodies everything Faulkner University espouses to be,” Faulkner University President Mike Williams said. “Jere Lynn Burkhart is a pioneer who led the trailblazing movement to speak for a segment of our nation who could not speak for themselves.”
“No one came forward with a solution. She forged her way through the darkness using the compass of the Lord Jesus Christ to find a way.”
Today, Burkhart’s vision is embodied in the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research at Texas Tech University, which is named for Jere Lynn and Jim Burkhart whose financial gifts made possible the establishment and mission of the center.
Last year, it was announced that Faulkner would begin plans for its own autism center. The university leadership reached out to the Burkharts and Texas Tech University to help with “best practices” and moving forward in developing a similar center, one that would use Jere Lynn’s original concept as its foundation.
“Jere Lynn’s original idea was to educate parents and teachers and she also became involved in the transition program so that we can help students once they came out of high school to develop social skills, life skills and employment skills,” said Janice Magness, the director of the Transition Academy at the Burkhart Center.
At the time, Burkhart’s plan seemed insurmountable, but she kept her faith and powered through with the help and full support of her husband and family.
“I asked her how we could do this. We don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t do this, but she said, ‘Yes, Jim, we can. We can do this,’” Jim Burkhart said. “There was not the facilities and knowledge of autism that exits today and she pioneered that into school systems. It was her vision to educate educators in autism and provide a clearing house of information and help for those parents who suddenly got the diagnosis.”
Burkhart’s research, hard work and tenacity was the breakthrough that autism education needed and in so doing she has helped spur others to action across the country. The Burkhart Center continues that work through research that identifies effective interventions for those with autism, illuminates the behavioral and physiological underpinnings of autism and informs professional training and development of teachers and therapists to improve the lives of people with autism every day.
Faulkner’s autism center is underway with $5 million already in funding along with the opening of the university’s new College of Health Sciences, the hiring of a high-caliber team of staff and faculty and the opening of Faulkner University’s Speech and Language Pathology Clinic.
“When our students are faced with the challenges of Montgomery, Alabama, we ask the question if not us, then who?” Williams said. “When they are confronted with the impact of poverty, childhood diabetes and a host of other society issues, we ask the question if not now, then when.”
“It’s not enough to do nothing when one in 59 children in America is born into the autism spectrum. It is time for us to do something. We want to run toward the epidemic health needs of our city, state and region, and the center piece of this initiative is the center for autism.”