Capital campaign launched for Giant Steps Autism Centre

Foundation hopes to raise $24 million for innovative $50.7 million project

The Giant Steps Foundation has launched a $24 million fundraising campaign to build the future Giant Steps Autism Centre in eastern Montreal, with the ultimate goal being to position Quebec as a leader in the field of autism education, services and research.

Autism services

The school that was started nearly 40 years ago by autism research pioneer Darlene Berringer, delivering education and therapeutic services for children on the autism spectrum, has decided to expand its mission and reach after being located in other areas of Montreal.

To date, the Giant Steps Foundation has secured commitments for the project totalling over $14 million from donors, such as Fondation Marcelle et Jean Coutu, Hewitt Foundation, the Molson Foundation and National Bank. An additional $1.3 million has come from parents. The campaign is being led by co-chairs Andrée Dalaire and André Bourbonnais.

Funds from Quebec sought

In addition, the parents have collectively pledged more than $1.3 million towards the project. The total cost is $50.7 million, for which Giant Steps is seeking a 50 per cent contribution from the Quebec government – hopefully in the provincial budget expected on March 25.

Giant Steps is seeking a 50 per cent contribution from Quebec, hopefully in the provincial budget on March 25

According to the foundation’s plans, the Giant Steps Autism Centre will include four independent but integrated pillars to help fill the gaps in the current service model. They are:

  • An expanded Giant Steps School;
  • An adult Education and Employment Centre;
  • A resource and Community Centre;
  • A research and Innovation Hub.

More than a school

In its nearly four-decade history, Giants Steps School has been located in several areas of west-end Montreal, including Westmount, then later in Notre Dame de Grâce. However, the new centre promises to be more than a school, according to Giants Steps board president Nicolas Katalifos.

“Obviously we have outgrown it,” Katalifos said in an interview with the Laval News, referring to Giant Steps School’s most recent home in a multi-storey former school and office building on Connaught Ave. in NDG.

Giant Steps School president Nick Katalifos
Giant Steps School president Nick Katalifos.

“There are a lot of kids that we don’t have enough room to accept. Because of space issues, we’ve been accepting only one out of 10 applicants, which is something that has been a burden on us. For years, we’ve been wanting to be able to accept more kids and to reach out more.”

‘Vision’ for the future

According to Katalifos, several years ago administrators and parents at the school embarked on a consultation process to determine what the needs of the Montreal-area autism community currently are. He said the outcome was a vision for the future Giant Steps Autism Centre. “We decided to go wide, as they say, and to launch the project officially to make people more aware of it,” said Katalifos.

The new 66,500-square-foot centre will be located in the Technopôle Angus neighbourhood of Rosemont in east-end Montreal, where it will have increased capacity for programs. As a result, the school will be going from an enrollment of 90 up to 120 students. The adult education and employment centre is expected to help 150 adults per year, up from the current 20.

A steady path forward

Katalifos agreed that every phase of Giant Steps School’s development from the beginning has been marked by major improvements and forward development.

“Our mandate has always been to serve the families and the kids at the school,” he said. “But we’ve also tried to go way beyond that by working on projects to expand awareness about autism and that can also help in specific areas.”

Case in point, he noted that part of the new centre will be used to treat autism as a life-long issue that goes on after persons with autism become adults. “Once an autistic person becomes a legal adult, services for them tend to just stop, and there is a huge concern currently over that,” he said.

A life-long issue

“So, part of the vision of this new centre is to look at autism as a life-long issue, and as a result to offer services that can benefit people with autism throughout the course of their lifetimes.”

He said that as things now stand, the unemployment rate among persons with autism is around 85 per cent.

“That’s ludicrous, because all the research shows that these are people who make exceptional employees and who do really well and they just need to be given a chance.”