This is another in our series about people who see a need and work to meet it. If you know about people who make things happen, let me know and I will share their stories with our readers.
ALISON LAI was looking for a summer job, not a mission.
The job, as a counselor at a summer camp in Toronto two years ago, was only supposed to provide a break from her studies at Penn and a needed infusion of cash going into her sophomore year.
But she got blindsided by a 3-year-old boy.
"The camp integrated typically developing kids with autistic kids," she recalled. "In the afternoons, I got to work with him one-on-one.
"He was in the lowest-functioning group. He wouldn't interact with the other kids. He didn't even cross the gate to go where they were playing.
"But, by the end of the summer, he was playing and interacting with the other kids and even trying to communicate with them.
"I saw what just three weeks could do. It taught me how crucial early intervention is."
After summer break, she called her friend, Michelle Fang, to gauge her interest in starting a campus club for students interested in working with autistic children. Fang, a Penn sophomore at the time, has a sister who is autistic.
About 20 to 30 students answered their campus call and formed Penn Speaks for Autism. In just two years, the student group has become an important asset for local organizations that work with autistic children.
"I got really excited when I got her call," Michelle said. "I think I just needed someone to put an idea in my head.
"I thought our club could help people learn tolerance and to understand more about autism."
Michelle's understanding came through a rude awakening when her little sister Carolyn was diagnosed in 2008.
"She was 3," Michelle recalled. "She didn't speak, she didn't make eye contact and she followed a very strict routine every day.
"But I can see dramatic differences every time I go home. She has built a vocabulary of 100 to 200 words, and she interacts with me now."
Students who showed up for Penn Speaks for Autism's first general meeting shared similar stories about the transformative effect that interacting with autistic children had on them and the children. But they weren't content to just talk about it.
"We made our mission to raise awareness, get information out to the community about resources," Alison said. "Then we started looking for volunteer opportunities for students to get involved in."
They sent student volunteers to autism organizations near campus and helped staff a summer program in which Penn's Center for Autism Research provided volunteers to public-school classrooms where autistic children were being integrated into the mainstream.
But the Penn Speaks students were too busy on campus to staff those classrooms after the summer. So they started looking for somewhere else to serve.
Meanwhile, Eric Williams, who runs a volunteer organization called Project Elijah Empowering Autism, was trying to open a therapeutic after-school program for autistic children, like his son Elijah.
"We found him on the website of the Autism Society of America," Alison said. "He was in the West Philadelphia area, which was convenient for us.
"The first problem he was running into was a lack of volunteers."
The collaboration provided Williams with enough volunteers to staff the after-school center, which will open next year at Charles Drew Elementary School, at 37th and Warren streets. The school district will set aside space at a community-assisted after-school program it runs at Drew called "Freedom School."
"It's a structured program based on each child's individual educational plan," Williams said. We will help them with speech, cognitive, socialization, inclusion skills and to stimulate social function.
"Because of the volunteers, we will always have at least a one-to-one ratio of students to staff."
They will start small with about 10 children and expand from there if they can.
"We want to work out the logistics before we tried to expand," Michelle said. "A lot of students are interested. But we want this to be sustainable."