Autism Awareness Turns Advocacy for Penske Logistics Manager
Editor’s note: This story is part of our “50 Stories of People Helping People” series. As we celebrate Penske’s 50th anniversary in 2019, we are spotlighting associates every Friday who are making a difference in their communities.
Gazing down at his newborn daughter, Dave McNichols would often wonder what life had in store for little Kristin and how she would make her mark on the world. He didn’t have long to wait.
Diagnosed in infancy with autism, McNichols set out to learn all he could about how to become the best advocate for his daughter’s care.
Some 31 years later, the road to discovery led McNichols, a Penske Logistics region manager in Ontario, California, to advocate on behalf of adults with developmental disabilities as president of the board of directors at Salem Christian Homes.
Dave McNichols and Kristin
“I look back to the effects Kristin and her having autism has had on our family,” McNichols said. “I am helping to lead an organization that will help people for many years to come and families will have a place to take their loved ones to live with great care.”
The non-profit operates 19 homes in southern California. Kristin has been living for the past seven years at the Blue Jay Home, where she has thrived, according to McNichols and her caretakers.
The special insight has also allowed McNichols to provide advice and understanding to other parents thrust into a similar situation of how to provide the best care for their family members with special needs.
This month the spotlight shines brightly on autism. The focus of World Autism Month is to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism, according to Autism Speaks.
The missing milestones of infancy – crawling and turning over – were the first signs for McNichols and his wife Cindy that something was not quite right with their daughter.
“Even before she was a year old, our parents noticed that Kristin wasn’t doing things other babies did,” McNichols said. “And that led us to search for answers and direction.”
The answers they received from the medical community were grim until they found a physician who could definitively diagnose Kristin with autism.
“When we went through the process for months, it was very difficult,” McNichols said. “We were young parents, and we were only hearing that Kristin will need assistance her whole life. We were not hearing any positive remarks about her or our life ahead with her.”
That all changed when they met a doctor at the UCLA Medical Center who not only provided a diagnosis but also helped them understand autism and offered guidance in choosing the right schools and day programs for Kristin.
“We worked with physical therapists, speech therapists and others to help Kristin with her mobility and speech,” McNichols said.
Having an answer did not temper the fear the first-time parents felt about the future for their child.
“It was pretty horrible to hear, but being a Christian and having faith in God, I always felt our focus should be to provide the best life possible for Kristin,” McNichols said. “Not focusing on how it would affect me or our family, I was always concerned with what was best for Kristin. That is how we lived with her from day one.”
Yet, the thought of what life would look like for Kristin, as she entered adulthood and middle age, did not become clear until her parents heard about Salem Christian Homes.
“That started us down a whole new path,” McNichols said.
A Home Away from Home
Salem Christian Homes began in 1960 by some families of developmentally disabled children in Ontario, California, who wanted to offer the children a school where they could develop skills to improve their quality of life.
Today, the non-profit operates 19 homes and serves 112 residents across southern California.
“We got on the waiting list, and the first two times they called and told us they had a room available, I wasn’t ready for Kristin to move out. It was something in my mind that said I’m giving up if my daughter lives somewhere else,” McNichols said. “But finally the third time, we agreed it was the right fit, the right timing.”
Seven years later, the apprehension McNichols and his wife felt has turned into the best decision for Kristin, now 31.
“She has become a lot more independent, a lot easier going,” McNichols said. “She has learned many skills that she never displayed at home – such as how to put on her own shoes and socks.”
The home she lives in – the Blue Jay Home – is in a neighborhood not far from her family home.
“There are full-time caretakers around the clock. She gets bussed to her day program, and she goes bowling, to the mall to walk and she shops,” McNichols said.
“She is super happy, loves her environment and the people who care for her. And we get to see her typically weekly,” he said. “It gave her a new lease on life.”
Awareness to Advocacy
After Kristin moved into the Blue Jay Home, McNichols and his wife began volunteering at Salem Christian Homes helping with different events, including the Annual Benefit Auction, the Christmas cookie decoration event and the annual “Run, Walk and Roll” fundraiser.
In 2017, McNichols was invited to join Salem’s board of directors, and in December, he was elected president of the board. One challenge the board faces is how to secure a long-term strategy for the non-profit.
McNichols believes his role with Penske has prepared him to assume a leadership role with Salem.
“With a large organization like Penske, I am used to working in a structured environment with support from HR, Legal, Payroll and other departments,” McNichols said. “With Salem being a smaller organization with limited resources, I’ve been able to offer guidance with structure and leadership, along with working to build a long-term strategy.”
One of the more rewarding aspects for McNichols has been the ability to assist other families as they struggle with the decision about placing their child with Salem.
“We help encourage them through the process because they are concerned about what happens next,” McNichols said. “We help ease their tension about that. We are just trying to give back.”
McNichols’ impact extends well beyond the boardroom.
Crystal Garcia, the administrator at the Blue Jay Home, has witnessed firsthand McNichols’ kindness toward staff and his genuine interest in the well-being of residents.
“He always has that can-do personality that I think is wonderful, because when you are around someone like that, it rubs off on you,” Garcia said. “He is one of those guys who is behind the scenes but always front and center trying to make sure everything goes smoothly for everyone.”
By Bernie Mixon