Senior Tiffany Baker always has a smile and a friendly “hello” when she walks into class. She loves to talk to her friends in the hall, and she easily joins in their laughter when someone tells a joke. She is very much like every other teenage girl at Travis.
But the outgoing senior is also different from other teenage girls.
Tiffany was diagnosed with autism when she was 5 years old and what most teenagers take for granted about life and friendships, she has had to make a special effort to learn. It has not always been easy for her. Autism affects one in 88 children, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, through all her struggles learning basic human interactions, not only has she has managed to make friends, but she has also started her own endeavor, which she calls “Tiffany’s Project,“ that is devoted to helping children with autism and cancer around the world.
“The experience has really transformed me. I have learned how to make eye contact with people, but most of all I have learned how to gain friends and get along with people,” Baker said.
This was all thanks to Relation Development Intervention (RDI), which is an autism treatment remediation program, and to autism specialist Dr. Rachelle Sheely. Dr. Sheely has worked with Tiffany for the past 14 years on focusing and communicating, but the Travis senior has received help from other people as well.
“One of the challenges I had to overcome was writing. I could not form letters when I was 3 years old, so for 12 years I was in hand-writing therapy at Texas Children’s Hospital,” Tiffany said.
Susan Baker, Tiffany’s mother, has been a big source of support for her, and has become somewhat of an authority on the subject of autism
“Autism is a neurological disorder that is characterized by three core deficits,” Baker explained.
Children with Autism have an impaired neurological system, which means that the brain is not processing information correctly, she said. This could include language, emotions, thoughts, feelings, dreams, and memories along with anything else, and could result in autistic people having impaired decision making ability.
“This information is not processed properly,” Baker said, explaining that autistic children only recognize static intelligence and not dynamic intelligence.
Static communication is answering questions with concrete answers.
“What is 2×2? What is the capital of Texas?,” Baker said. “Autistic children excel in static communication. Dynamic communication, on the other hand, is the ability to use thinking to interact thoughtfully and collaboratively.”
Because of these impairments, autistic children are not able to use their parents or other individuals as guides, so they do not gain the skills for building relationships of any kind. This leads to social isolation.
Tiffany refuses to let any of this get in her way. When she decides to do something, she puts everything she has into it, her mother says.
“Tiffany never lets a challenge get her down. She looks for ways around it,” Baker said.
The teen named her organization Tiffany’s Project. The goal is to send inspiring cards, handmade by Tiffany, to children with cancer and autism. She started it in June when her mother started graduate school and she was looking for something to do.
“I always wanted to help kids with cancer, and this way I can. With each card I include a colored in picture, an inspiring Bible verse, and I tell them to never ever give up,” Tiffany said.
At first, she managed to get the children’s names from prayer groups, but she was only getting a few children at a time. A woman named Amy Falot, who found Tiffany on one of her Facebook pages, started to help her locate them. Because of Amy’s help, she was able to increase that to 20 to 30 children a week.
“In the beginning Amy helped Tiffany find the kids and sent her the addresses, but about three months ago Amy taught Tiffany to do this herself,” Baker said. “Tiffany now finds all of the children herself, sometimes up to 30 a day. Tiffany is now not dependent on Amy.”
Amy joined in early on because she was interested in Tiffany’s work, but now she only helps Tiffany if she needs it.
“I private message the parents on Facebook asking if I can send a card to their kid, and then, after I get their address, I ask what picture the kid would like,” Tiffany said.
Her inspiration comes from having always wanted to help children with cancer, and so far she has sent over 900 cards around the world. She hopes to send many more cards.
“I use to keep track of how many cards I sent out by writing the number on an envelope box, but now I keep track by a map on my website,” Tiffany said. “It records everyone I send a card to.”
Her father maintains her website, tiffanysproject.org, while her friend Amy helps administer her two Facebook pages, SendingArtProductsToChildrenWithAutism and SendingArtProjectsToKidsWithCancer, and they both have over 2,000 followers since their creation in June.
“A lot of people help me by sending in supplies for me to make the cards with. I have gotten a lot of markers, crayons, stickers and even pastels,” Tiffany said.
She also sells bracelets on her online Etsy shop, helpingallkidssmile, and all the money goes towards buying supplies for the cards. Each bracelet is $10, but all the money goes towards making and sending the cards out to children around the world.
“We only started selling the bracelets about a month ago. So far we have sold 10 to 12 bracelets,” Tiffany said in October.
At the moment, the Baker family has been moving away from the Etsy shop to selling greeting cards in small shops around the community. The proceeds are to help gain funds for the cards, since the bracelets are not working out as well as Tiffany and Baker had hoped they would. Each card will include a picture on the back of Tiffany along with a child she has helped.
“I am advertising my organization by putting flyers around the school and handing them out to my friends too. I hope to gain support for my cause from my friends,” Tiffany said.
Tiffany and her mother are running a stamp drive to help collect stamps to send the cards out, and their goal is to raise 1,000 stamps by the end of the year. As of October, they had collected 938 stamps with many more promised to come, along with over $100 in donations. They have some other goals in mind for later in the year.
“We have met with some individuals who are helping us understand what we need to do to turn it into a non-profit organization and what would entail… which is quite a lot,” Baker said.
The Baker family’s goal is to have Tiffany’s Project be a non-profit organization within a year. However, they have found out that it is an expensive process that costs $875 plus lawyer fees. Their goal is to have Tiffany’s business pay for the non-profit, but they are looking at other routes too.
“With each card Tiffany sends to a child she includes information about her website,” Baker said. “Our hope is that the parents of the children will look at her website and then be inclined to donate.”
Even people from the stamp drive are now donating to the project. Besides this, Dr. Sheely did a training seminar on autism and mentioned Tiffany’s Project, which resulted in more donations flooding in.
“The purpose of this organization is to help kids with cancer and autism,” Tiffany said. “I hope to gain more supporters as time moves on. It is my passion and my life. I won’t stop till I go to Heaven.”