COLUMBIA — When Ella McPheeters was 3, she spoke her first word, "bubbles."
Before then, Ella was entirely nonverbal. At age 2, she was diagnosed with "pervasive development disorder, not otherwise specified," a type of autism. It was only when she started therapy a year later that "her language completely blew up," her mother, Hope McPheeters, said.
Pepsi Refresh Everything Grants is awarded to up to 32 people who submit their ideas to the project.
Grant money distribution
If participants are not among the top placeholders, they can resubmit between the 1st and 15th of a subsequent month or until the project receives 1,000 submissions.
Voting takes place online and is open from the first to last days of the month.
Idea submissions and voting are open to anyone, including individuals and companies.
To vote or submit an idea, visit refresheverything.com.
Therapy has worked for Ella, now 5, and McPheeters is grateful her daughter has been able to receive it. But she knows it might not be available to other parents in Columbia.
"I've heard from a lot of moms from all the small towns around Columbia that they're really without resources," she said.
After talking to these parents, McPheeters heard about the Pepsi Refresh Project on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." Pepsi gives away grants totaling $1.3 million a month to people with good ideas, and McPheeters decided to apply for a $25,000 grant.
The goal of McPheeters' Ella's Hope Foundation would be "to promote autism awareness and support families affected by autism spectrum disorders."
"I know Columbia is the type of city to get behind things like this," McPheeters said.
She would use the grant this way:
"(Dividing) the money was funny," McPheeters said. "They just make you think about it at first. Again, this was such a preliminary state that I was like 'I just need startup costs, and I need money to go locally to people.' "
During a month in which a grant is under consideration, anyone can vote online for a particular grant. Ella's Hope is one of 37 autism grants in the national pool this month, and McPheeters is pleased there are so many.
"It's really nice to see people wanting to get things done about (autism)," she said. "We're not alone out there."
For McPheeters' idea to get the July grant, it has to be in the top 10 for its category, health. As of Monday, Ella's Hope was 55th out of 280 ideas in that category.
Voting for Ella's Hope closes on July 31. If she doesn't get the grant, McPheeters plans to enter again in September.
"No matter what, win or lose, we're going to do it," she said, "and when it's ready to go, at least the word is out there, the name is out there and people know what we're doing."
Although parents tell McPheeters how inspirational she is, she is quick to credit her daughter.
"Ella's an inspiration to me," she said. "She's the hardest working 5-year-old I know, and she goes to school for three hours a day and comes home and does therapy for two hours a day and she doesn't really complain about it too much."
After being diagnosed at the Thompson Center, Ella was on a waiting list for a year before starting therapy. Her therapy focuses on detecting autism early and providing behavioral therapy to develop new skill sets. EIBI is a part of the Applied Behavior Analysis used by therapists and consultants to tailor a program to Ella's behavioral progress; it has been intrinsic to Ella's success in the past two years.
All of the lessons Ella does during the week are taught by reinforcement.
"We base it all on behavior analysis," said Ella's behavior consultant, Megan Tregnago. "We give her an instruction and then we look for the correct behavior, then reinforce that."
In Tregnago's view, the biggest obstacle for a lot of families in Missouri has been funding.
"Autism continues to increase, so there are more and more children who need this," Tregnago said. "With Ella's Hope, if they can get money for that, then they can give people scholarships to get treatment they can't afford right now."
The Missouri Autism Insurance Bill, which passed in June, will require insurance companies to cover up to $40,000 a year for diagnosis and therapy costs for families with children with autism until age 18. The law takes effect in January 2011.
Even with the law, some families might not qualify to receive funding for therapy, McPheeters said. The goal of Ella's Hope is to fill in all these holes to provide scholarships for as many people possible. It could also help with therapist costs.
"There's not a whole lot of funding, and therapists need to get training for this kind of work," said Emma Murphy, one of Ella's behavioral therapy assistants.
Murphy has worked with Ella three times a week for about a year.
"She has progressed a lot," Murphy said. "When I first started working with her, she had more behavioral problems. She listens really well now and engages in play activities more with other people."
Murphy said that funding for therapy programs is important so that children with autism can start as early as possible.
"It's a really good way for young kids with autism to try to get ready for school," she said. "If they start working on it early enough most kids can make really good progress with behavior therapy."
Ultimately, family plays the most important role, McPheeters said.
“The parents are by far the No. 1 resource,” she said. “If the parent feels that something is working, that is the most important thing because their kiddos need their parents behind them. They need their family behind them.”