Erica Gonzalez found her calling in life.
Doctors diagnosed her son Ethan Nicholas at an early age with a rare chromosome disorder that left him behind his older brother developmentally. When the mother of three moved to Harnett County from Virginia a few years ago, she found her new surroundings offered limited resources for her special needs son.
“[Ethan] was the first that Duke and UNC had ever seen with this type of disorder,” Gonzalez said. “He still is the first and he’s eight now. I’m from Virginia and am used to more resources for children.”
In 2017, Gonzalez founded the Ethan Nicholas Foundation, a recently recognized 501(c)3 nonprofit created to funnel more resources to children with special needs. Gonzalez hopes that one day the foundation will lead to the creation of a childcare facility in Harnett County tailored specifically to special needs children.
“I decided to start this to see what resources I could find to help other mothers like me who have children with special needs or disabilities,” said Gonzalez. “There are a lot of mothers like me who don’t trust daycares because they’re not equipped and their staff are not properly trained to work [with] our children.”
Gonzalez’s research identified more than 600 exceptional children in the Harnett County Schools system. She wants her facility to provide individualized educational planning, positive behavioral support, speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, fundamental educational instruction, educational field trips and parental guidance/training. The Walmart in Holly Springs recently donated $1,000 to the foundation, and Gonzalez said she relies on the community to help realize her goals.
“The little things are everything until all this falls into place and I get enough grants to open the childcare center,” Gonzalez said. “The community has been so generous.”
Ethan attends a summer camp every year sponsored by the N.C. Autism Society. Another mission of the foundation, Gonzalez said, is to send another special needs child with her son to the camp. Costs range from a couple hundred dollars to more than $1,000 depending on the grant funding, and Gonzalez knows what kind of expense that is on a family.
“I feel like every child should experience this camp,” said Gonzalez. “It’s awesome. Whatever the N.C. Autism Society doesn’t cover, the foundation will. That’s what I am praying and hoping to be able to do. With the community’s help, I believe that we will be able to do that.”
In addition to the foundation, Gonzalez also expanded the “Buddy Backpack” program at Coats Elementary School, helping provide meals to 18 low income Exceptional Children students every weekend. She partnered with a Fayetteville food bank for donations and also reached out to Harris Teeter and Food Lion.
“A lot of people forget that these kids need help, too,” Gonzalez said. “Some children’s meals are really just what they get at school. I want to do more. Hopefully the community can help out because I want to put more in those bags for the kids. I reached out to [HCS assistant superintendent] Jermaine White and told him I wanted to do this for every school with EC classes in Harnett County. I’m only one person.”
Gonzalez funds much of the foundation’s efforts out of her own pocket. She is planning a Dec. 19 Christmas party for the EC class at Coats Elementary School and received some much-needed support from a family who appreciated her efforts.
“I don’t know how I do it, but God really provides,” said Gonzalez. “I’m grateful and thankful for the people who do donate. One of my customers owns a business and he came in and told me that I was blessed. I started telling him about the foundation and called his wife and told her that they would be dressing up as Santa and were going to help me out. They said they were going to be here for the kids.”
Gonzalez understands what it means to be the parent of a child with special needs. She realizes her obligations extend beyond high school graduation and well into Ethan’s adulthood. She also knows there are other parents like her out there who are living in similar circumstances, and it’s those families she wants to help above all else.
“I am all he has and I will have to take care of him the rest of my life,” Gozalez said. “There are other children like him. I may not be able to change the world, but at least I can change one child’s life. That means a lot to me. This is where my heart is at and I believe this is my calling.”
For more information, visit ethannicholasfoundation.com or call 757-328-1151.
Eliot Duke can be reached at 910-230-9038 or email@example.com.