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Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
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Sixth-grader raises money for Autism Speaks
Girl inspired by kids she met on a family vacation
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Staff Photo by Stacey Hairston: April is National Autism Awareness Month and sixth-grader Vandalina Holcomb (right) is raising money for Autism Speaks. Above, she is shown with Dana Kelley, a special education coordinator at Benjamin Franklin Middle School.

Monday, April 14, 2014


A family vacation on a cruise ship three years ago sparked an interest in a young girl's heart that is still going strong today.

"There were a lot of kids on the ship that seemed different from me," said Vandalina Holcomb. "I asked my mom about it and she explained that they had autism."

Holcomb, who is now 11 and a sixth-grader at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, began doing her own research on the disorder and what she found touched her heart in a profound way.

"I felt helpless because they looked just like me, but there was something different about them," Holcomb said.

This year, Holcomb decided to take action by raising money for the Autism Speaks organization.

"Vandalina came to us and asked if there was a way we could involve the whole school in her mission," said Dana Kelley, a special education coordinator at BFMS. "Instead of just involving the sixth grade, we decided to make this a school-wide effort."

Students at BFMS are collecting loose change and hanging posters around the school to raise awareness.

"Each teacher gets a small box for students to drop their change into," said Holcomb. "My goal is $1,000 and right now we have raised $260."

Kelley said that once $500 is collected, the BFMS PTO will match the funds.

A poster contest took place last week in which three winners received a Walmart gift card and the honor of their posters being displayed throughout the halls of the school.

Students are also having "hat day" in which students will donate $1 to wear a hat for the day, with all proceeds benefiting Autism Speaks.

On the daily morning announcements, BFMS students will be greeted with public service announcements that will educate and encourage understanding and acceptance of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

As April is National Autism Awareness Month, staff and students wore blue on April 2 in support of autism awareness. Holcomb also made blue hand-beaded bracelets for teachers and staff at the school.

The school's FOR (Friends of Rachel) club and student council are also on board with Holcomb's project and are helping other students understand and appreciate fellow students with ASD.

"We have 20 students at the middle school with ASD," said Kelley. "There are about 80 students division-wide."

"The good thing about it is that when it is diagnosed early, there is a possibility for more early intervention," said Holcomb.

Social skills and communication are the main things Kelley says impacts an autistic child's ability to live in society.

While researching autism, Holcomb said she learned of an autistic girl who was diagnosed early and was able to receive early intervention.

"Reading her story touched me," said Holcomb. "Really, she just needed an alternative way to communicate."

Holcomb said she wants to earn a lifeguard certificate when she gets to high school so she can work with autistic children through water therapy.

"Water therapy is a great release for those kids," Holcomb said.

"Vandalina has a kind heart and since she's been on campus, she has gone out of her way to seek out students who have special needs and pull them into her social circle," said Kelley. "She helps engage those children into communicating with her and her peers. Middle school is a hard transition for students, and Vandalina is a good leader and role model for others. When they see her go out of her comfort zone to engage special needs students, they want to follow her example and do the same."

Money raised during Holcomb's campaign will help support autism research and families with autistic children.

"It costs about $60,000 a year for a family to support a child with autism," said Kelley. "This project is a great way for Vandalina to express herself and satisfy her need to help others while we satisfy our desire to help students be productive in a global society."

Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the United States. Most autistic children are diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3, with boys being five times more likely to have autism than girls.

Early signs of autism include:

•No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months or thereafter.

•No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by nine months.

•No babbling by 12 months.

•No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months.

•No words by 16 months.

•No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months.

•Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age.

Holcomb said she plans to participate in a 5-K walk in Richmond in September to raise more awareness for autism.

"We should all become informed (visit, involved (raise money) and invested (volunteer time) in this cause," said Holcomb.

"If you have time, we have a need," said Kelley.

Holcomb is the daughter of the late Neil Holcomb, and Stacey and Richard Stanfield of Bassett.

More information on ASD can be found at

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