Helping others find their voice

SK2 Kristy Harward

Petty Officer 2nd Class Kristy Harward, a storekeeper with the Coast Guard Base Ketchikan Detachment in Juneau, Alaska, sits at her desk in the 17th District administration office and shows off the tablet that helps her son communicate February 1, 2013. Harward organized a fundraiser to purchase iPads for Coast Guard families with children affected by autism spectrum disorder and autism. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Autism is a disorder that most people have probably heard of, but few can relate to. For anyone not familiar with the symptoms, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kristy Harward, a storekeeper with the Coast Guard Base Ketchikan detachment in Juneau, Alaska, provides some perspective and explains her effort to improve the quality of life for families with autistic children.

For Harward, whose spouse is also a Coast Guardsman serving hundreds of miles away in Kodiak, receiving her son’s diagnosis in 2012 set her on a path to helping others.

Parents of autistic children face communication and social-interaction challenges on top of the normal rigors of raising a child. Though broadly defined, autism spectrum disorder and autism are related to complex brain development an include difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

“It’s like dropping you off in a remote area of China, and telling you to survive,” said Harward. For example, Harward recalls an incident where her son said he wanted milk, but was frustrated when it was given to him because he actually wanted something else. “He definitely wanted juice, but he can’t tell you that’s what he wanted,” she added.

Fortunately, she came across a piece of technology that was changing the lives of families affected by the disorder. Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization founded in 2005, brought a variety of communication tools to families by creating useful applications for tablets.

“What the iPads do is they communicate for the kid,” said Harward.

With the swipe of a finger, the app replaces outdated communication tools by leaps and bounds. What used to be a clumsy handful of cards designed to convey a message is suddenly a colorful, extensive supply of words and expressions capable of tracking every aspect of a child’s life.

“We could sit down and have dinner like a normal family,” said Harward.

After seeing what a huge impact the application made in her son’s ability to communicate, Harward knew she wanted to make the tool available to other Coast Guard families. Because some learning disorders are not covered by insurance, she knew that purchasing a tablet could be difficult for some due to cost.

Taking initiative to make this a reality, Harward contacted David Borg, of the Juneau-area Chief Petty Officers Association, for assistance. Borg, although excited about the proposition, told Harward there were only 13 days available to raise funds due to the approach of the year’s end.

“We as the CPOA totally supported the whole effort,” said Borg. “Here’s a second class petty officer that’s coming up with ideas that will help numerous families in Alaska.”

 Wasting no time, Harward began selling raffle tickets throughout the Juneau community in early December. In two weeks she raised a remarkable $1,220: enough to purchase three tablets.

With the heavy lifting behind her, Harward triumphantly took the newly-acquired learning tools to Betsy Longenbaugh, with the Coast Guard 17th District Worklife program. Longenbaugh works specifically with special needs families and was able to reach out to families with Autistic children to find the homes where the iPads would be the most beneficial.

With some hard work, good timing and a genuine concern for her shipmates, Harward had a positive impact on the lives of three families she does not even know.

The fundraiser was a success, but Harward said her work is not done.

“I already know I want to do it again next year for the entire month of December,” she said. “We raised $1,200 in two weeks, so I’m thinking we can get $2,400 in four.”

For more information about iPads for Autism, contact Petty Officer 2nd Class Kristy Harward at 907-463-2114.