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Shining Light in the Darkness: Teen With Autism Brings Joy During COVID-19


Directions in Independent Living Celebrates Disability Awareness Month With Great Success Stories

Jacob came to his weekly CoCo & Chill zoom meeting with his usual bounce and enthusiasm.  But, this afternoon was different.  His friend, Avianna, could not attend which concerned him yet didn’t dampen his spirit.

Jacob and Avianna at Olean City Hall

The weekly gathering offers online support during COVID-19 and is sponsored by the “Together We Thrive” program offered in Allegany and Cattaraugus counties through a generous grant to Directions in Independent Living from the Blue Cross & Blue Shield Blue Fund.

 “Miss Emily, Avianna is sad.  I don’t know if she can come,” he said, with sincere concern for his friend. 

“I sent her pictures and I talked with her and cheered her up. I told her we were going to City Hall tomorrow,” he said, adding he would check again with Avianna to see if she might come.

At age 16, Jacob, whose disability is on the Autism Spectrum, seems excited about everything in life and especially his goals for himself.

“He’s a shining light in the darkness,” said Emily Sullivan, director of the program which supports ‘at-risk’ people age 10 to 25 in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.

“We say ‘at risk’, as pretty much everyone is ‘at-risk’ during the COVID Pandemic, which has enabled us to see the important need for social connection and support, hence the name CoCo & Chill, which stands for Connecting through COVID.”

 “He has an anti-bullying campaign,” Sullivan said, as Jacob added it’s on his Facebook he set up for it named bullyingendhere. “And, he leads a Saturday night Bible study.”

Jacob, whose enthusiasm turns passionate around several issues, declared he is hoping to run for president someday.

His presidential role model and inspiration is Abraham Lincoln because “he was nice to people,” Jacob said, adding, more seriously, that as president, “I would end hunger, make crime rate drop and reunite the country.”

“I like American history and reading stories about the presidents. But I can’t name all 46 of them. Abraham Lincoln is my hero,” he said.

“He wanted to reunite our country. He freed all the slaves. I love that.”

After a moment, Jacob glanced at his cell phone and said Avianna wouldn’t be coming.

“Jacob is always wanting to help people feel better,” Sullivan said.

“Yeah. I left a note on the bench at Lincoln Park,” he said, jumping back into the conversation.

“I left a note that said, ‘We will get through this together.’ I wanted to brighten somebody’s day.”

In addition to his compassion and political aspirations, as any 16-year-old, his thoughts turn to driving and announced he has plans to work with his support workers through Directions in Independent Living to get his driver’s permit this summer.

For that day’s adventure, the first in-person outing with program participants, Sullivan and Tiffany Whipple picked up the CoCo & Chill group in the van purchased through their grant from the Blue Fund. They took a trip to Sage ( for healthy smoothies, and then to Lincoln Park to enjoy their smoothies, before heading to the Olean Library.

“We ate our smoothies at Lincoln Park.  It was cold that day,” Jacob recalled. “Then we went to the library, where Miss Tiffany and Miss Emily helped me learn how to get a new library card, find books I wanted, and check out books with my library card.”

Despite his disability, Jacob’s light remains bright thanks to the CoCo & Chill (Together We Thrive Program) support, and he continues to shine joy and a lively enthusiasm everywhere he goes.

CoCo & Chill is offered in three separate age groups which include a Social Group for ages 10 and up (designed for students who may benefit more from social connection and special attention, rather than instruction), which meets on Zoom from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. on Mondays; a Teens Group for ages 13-17 which meets from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays; and an Adults Group for individuals who are out of school and are ages 17-25 from 12:15 – 1:15 p.m. Mondays.

For information about the program, contact Emily Sullivan at or call 716-307-0654.

And “Directions” is hiring!! Have you considered a career that really makes a difference?

In case you missed our other stories from “Directions” about those overcoming disability.

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