Lisa Vilella, Downriver’s “Mimi with a Mission”
“Mom, I have friends!”
What a powerful, beautiful thing for a parent to hear for the first time in their child’s life. That is what the Puzzle Parents Group, operated by Downriver charity Mimi’s Mission, offers to parents and families of local children on the autism spectrum, and so much more.
Mimi’s Mission founder, Lisa Vilella, did not set out to become an advocate for children on the spectrum. Her charitable journey began differently. Vilella had been the owner of an insurance agency in Woodhaven for ten years when she received a call from a friend in 2013. A young man experiencing hardship needed clothes so that he could attend his graduation. Vilella made a post on Facebook to see if anyone could help and very quickly, not only was clothing donated, but someone sent a $200 restaurant gift card to complete the evening. This was the beginning of something truly special!
Being a “Mimi” to her four grandchildren, Lisa could not turn away from the suffering of others when she became aware of specific situations. She facilitated donations of food, clothing, household goods, etc. to local families with an immediate need to the extent that it became obvious that a charity was in the making. Two years ago, Vilella officially retired from her insurance agency to focus her efforts entirely on her family, Mimi’s Mission and the Puzzle Parents Group.
The concept of a support group for parents of children on the autism spectrum is not new, but the approach adopted by Lisa and her colleagues at Mimi’s Mission is unique. A few years ago, before she retired, an insurance client whose child is on the spectrum called with a desperate plea. The parent needed help on multiple fronts. The child had been removed from the home and their financial circumstances were dire. Through Mimi’s Mission, the situation was resolved favorably for the family and the need for support for this community was identified.
Puzzle Parents is a remarkable program that has been very impactful. There are currently fifty children on the autism spectrum in the program. They call themselves the Puzzle Kidz. Their parents, siblings, and grandparents all participate in monthly outings such as going to movies where the group rents the theater, Rev’d Up Fun, and other learning experiences. The group also holds bi-monthly meetings for dinner and desert at St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Wyandotte. Here the Puzzle Kidz can hang out with each other, under supervision, while their parents meet separately. They celebrate birthdays, sing happy birthday, and guess who cleans up? The Puzzle Kidz.
This is where the unique nature of the Puzzle Parents Group becomes evident. The entire family of a child on the autism spectrum often lives a constrained life. Behaviors, babysitting, and socializing can be problematic, leading to the family’s isolation. The Puzzle Parents program offers solutions and support to the whole family with the help of dedicated volunteers. For example, Ms. Traci Hopper and her Airport High School Advanced Placement students exhibit great kindness by providing tutoring and
babysitting services free of charge. They are also the ones supervising the children at the group events.
Recently though, things have been difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be hard for people on the autism spectrum to process the current restrictions. The disruption to their routine is often upsetting, which leads to more behaviors. Mimi’s Mission has been focusing on trying to help the parents help the children. The goal is to teach the children to manage themselves through self-soothing techniques. Each person is evaluated for their individual needs. Vilella’s group provides weighted blankets, noise-reducing headphones, iPads with communication programs, ankle weights and crash pads. Exercise is key! Lisa also stays in constant contact with the older kids and young adults who are often without other support resources. Sadly, young people with autism are at greater risk for suicide.
Although the Puzzle Parents Group has become a major focus, Vilella has not forgotten about the needs of other Downriver families. In fact, she started a new Facebook group earlier this year called Downriver Do-Gooders as a place to enable direct donations between members of the community. What is next on the horizon for Lisa Vilella? She is developing a program through Mimi’s Mission that will work with police departments, fire departments, and teachers to educate them on how to deal with children on the autism spectrum. If you would like more information about Mimi’s Mission, please follow their Facebook page or visit their website www.mimismission.com.