BIRMINGHAM — When Michele Kong was a little girl growing up in Malaysia, she knew the world was filled with both wonder and danger. She surprised herself and her family when she managed to kill a not-so-small python that slithered into their home. She laughs now remembering the incident, but she said someone had to do it to protect her family, and she had the shovel.
Dr. Kong is a long way from home these days, but the spirit of that young girl with the shovel still burns just as bright. So, when she and her family faced the challenge of a lifetime, they created a solution that has touched thousands of lives.
Her son, Abram, was just 4-years-old when he was diagnosed with autism. Because Dr. Kong and her husband are both physicians, they understood the science of the diagnosis, but what came next was a complete surprise.
“It was a difficult period for us after his diagnosis. As time went by, it became more apparent what Abram’s challenges were going to be, and we struggled with how best to help him. We were both physicians, with resources and a large medical network, and yet the journey with him as we navigated this new world was extremely challenging” Dr. Kong explained. “We also realized that it was an isolating journey – many countless hours were spent in therapy, and because of his sensory sensitivity, it was hard for him to attend community activities.”
Dr. Kong and her husband realized very quickly that not only were there limited resources available to meet their son’s needs, there were also limited resources available for them as a family. As they began to meet other families with children on the autism spectrum they realized they were not alone in their journey.
“There were other organizations and nonprofits focused on finding the cause for autism, but we realized that what we wanted to change was the culture of our community. We wanted to shift the mindset and culture to one where all special needs children and their families are accepted and included. It’s not just about awareness but about acceptance. It is also about meeting the children where they are, and using innovative ways to help them fulfill their potentials. And we believed that if we could change the culture one city at a time, we will eventually change the world’s view on our children.”
KultureCity was born. KultureCity is a national nonprofit based in Birmingham with the mission of the inclusion and acceptance of all special needs individuals and their families. Having only been in operation for about four years now, KultureCity has made major impact not only in Alabama, but also expanded to have offices in New York, Boston and Ohio. While awareness is always good, Dr. Kong said, action and acceptance are much better and together can change the culture of a city.
“At times people do not know what to say or do, and some of their action or inaction may be because of their lack of understanding of the real challenges that an individual with special needs may face. But once there is knowledge, there will be empathy, and with that the acceptance and more importantly, action. Actions to help an individual and their family be re-connected to the community, and to plug them back into our society. This is how we change culture,” Dr. Kong said. “Every single person has been impacted either directly or indirectly by autism. If you do not have someone in your family who has autism, you know someone else who does. It is that prevalent in our society, and this is why this mission should matter to us all.”
KultureCity is about action. The organization has teamed up nationally with the NFL, NBA and NHL as well as museums, zoos and gardens, just to name a few, to create sensory rooms for individuals with sensory needs. The rooms are calming areas designed to help an individual with sensory overload regulate and decompress. KultureCity staff also trains the organization’s staff to assist fans and guests who have sensory challenges. So far, KultureCity has outfitted seven NBA arenas, three NHL arenas, two NFL stadiums, an aquarium and science center, four zoos, seven restaurants and one college. The organization has received national recognition with the NASCAR 2017 Betty Jane France Humanitarian of the Year Award and named by Microsoft as one of the best nonprofits in the nation.
“We are constantly pushing the envelope to change our culture to one where everyone is accepted in every aspects of our community. A lot of times, these children have unlimited potential, but the difference between them and the typical child is because of their unique challenges they may need different resources, or different methods of teaching. We have to meet them where they are. It’s like fitting a round peg into a square hole. It just won’t fit. You can’t look at them and think that they’ve reached their limits because it is often not true. The limitation is on our perspective on what they can or cannot do,” Dr. Kong said.
If you would like to know more about KultureCity, to volunteer or make a donation, click here.