Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst gifted nearly $300K from the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust

AIM students have dinner with Wells Fargo executive web.

A longtime benefactor of the Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst, the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, has awarded AIM its largest grant yet—$281,268—to support the continued growth of this pioneering program for students on the autism spectrum. 

“We are indebted to the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust for its ongoing support,” said Mercyhurst President Kathleen A. Getz, Ph.D. “AIM would not be the international success and model that it is without the charity’s commitment to doing what we’ve aspired to do for nearly 100 years—serve the underserved, in this case, young people on the spectrum.” 

Nearly half of the Trees award is earmarked for specialized training for AIM staff designed to augment individualized programming for students, including PEERs Social Skills Training, NACE Professional Coaching, and Strong Interest Certification Training, among other wellness and behavioral training programs. The remaining half of the grant is reserved for student training in proficiencies necessary to become self-sufficient, among them life skills like cooking and driving.

The grant equips staff to provide the most appropriate guidance and training to students and their families, while also lending their expertise in recruiting and onboarding to businesses interested in hiring neurodiverse employees. 

Since its founding in 2008, AIM has grown from a program of four students to more than 60 with an enviable success record that has made it a model for colleges and universities across the country. Originally, the program’s goal was to enable students on the spectrum to become independent and productive by earning their college degrees. That success, while laudable, was met with disappointment when students could not get the jobs for which they had been trained. 

So, AIM expanded its programming to include a career component through which it forged numerous partnerships with industry, among them Wells Fargo, The MITRE Corp., PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Erie Insurance, all intended to break down stereotypes, open doors for AIM students, and build awareness about the abilities of people with high-functioning autism. It also provided resources for students, including vocational skills development, job shadowing, and assistance in obtaining internships and job interviews.

That, too, has achieved considerable success. At last count, 60 percent of AIM graduates had found productive employment; the national average for autistic Americans with university diplomas is 25 percent.

In 2022, AIM was integrated into the university’s new Brad McGarry Center for Neurodiversity with an expanded agenda designed to meet the needs of this growing demographic. The center’s new executive director, Ryan Palm, also expressed his gratitude, saying, “As we continue to expand our programming, the generosity of the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust will be invaluable.”

FILE PHOTO: As part of AIM’s career readiness programming, students enjoy dinner in New York City with executives of Wells Fargo.