Ben Atkinson saw a community need and led a group of volunteers to do something about it. His daughter, Amy, was born with spina bifada and was severely disabled. She was enrolled at Gateway Education Center, a public school that teaches kids like Amy. Most of the students operate in wheelchairs and learn to function with adapted equipment and toys. Amy made a mark for herself at the school and the teachers loved her quick smiles and warm hugs.
In 1997 Gateway participated in a community fundraiser, the Human Race, and raised about $2,000; pretty good for a first time group. Atkinson participated but commented to a small group, “We could make this a little bigger,” and the group said, “OK, you’re in charge.” Atkinson formed a committee and revitalized the fractured PTA with his enthusiasm and vision. He started a letter writing campaign that told stories about the kids and described the new equipment they could purchase with people’s donations. The Human Race became a unifying force for the PTA to work together and Atkinson led the charge.
The efforts of a unified PTA paid off in 1998 and continue to payoff. In 2001, Gateway Education raised $65,000 through the Human Race. Atkinson was the president of the PTA from 1999-2000 and became very aware that there was no program for students like Amy once they reached age 22. So Atkinson and others decided to institute a program to keep the students engaged, social, and busy after they graduated. He thought they might be able to raise money for the effort through the Human Race for what has come to be known as After Gateway. Before it even was off the ground, After Gateway raised $20,000; Amy was the top fund-raiser for the whole event, personally raising more than $14,000. Added to other grants and fundraising efforts, the Human Race allowed the new program to open in 2002, serving seven severely disabled adults.
Sadly, Atkinson’s daughter died unexpectedly of pneumonia two days after Christmas 2002. The church was full at her funeral; Amy had made a difference in the community. Atkinson and his family are even more determined now to keep her legacy, After Gateway, going strong. The Volunteer Center instituted the Amy Atkinson Achievement Award for the highest fundraiser in the Human Race. Atkinson and his committee have set a goal of $25,000 this year – they want to purchase a van to transport the folks at After Gateway to the field trips they so enjoy. They are getting wonderful support so far and have every expectation to meet the goal and exceed it.
Through Atkinson’s leadership, his wife’s support and help, the community has been made a better place. Everyday citizens who have able-bodied children have made friends with these disabled kids and have anew appreciation for the efforts it takes to manage life. And, graduates of Gateway Education Center now have a place of their own, After Gateway.