In his first year in office, Ward 1 Councilman Tom Oldham has already achieved one of his goals.
During the July 6 Sedalia City Council meeting, Mayor John Kehde made a proclamation declaring Sedalia an “Autism Friendly City,” a project Oldham has been working on for a while and one close to his heart.
In December, Oldham told the Democrat a personal passion of his was getting Sedalia declared an autism friendly city.
“I have someone close to me who is autistic,” Oldham said. “I want to take strides to be able to make Sedalia proclaimed and declared as an autism-friendly city. There’s only actually six or seven towns in the state of Missouri and I would like us to be one of them.”
Oldham’s girlfriend Kali has a little brother with autism, Hayden Parker, who Oldham considers his little brother. Oldham worked with his family and Kali’s family to accomplish his goal. He said the idea “really expanded” after attending the Missouri Municipal League Conference in September where he attended a session, “Blueprint for Building an Autism Friendly City” led by Mayor Debra Hickey of Battlefield and Dr. Linda Barboa.
“They delved into the purpose of why they did it,” Oldham said. “They recognized the need, not just on a personal level with Mayor Hickey’s grandson having autism, but just for inclusivity around this town, around the city.”
Oldham said he began the process by getting in contact with the support teams in Sedalia, particularly Stepping Stone Support Group.
“We got families together,” he said. “We got those with autism together and we talked about the need for inclusivity. The purpose. We talked about the methods we needed to use as well as what can expand after the proclamation came forth on what we can do?”
Oldham said he then met with Detective Mark Cherry about the Sedalia Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Training. He said during his first meeting of the year with the public safety board he set a goal for the fire department to receive CIT as well. He is also working on getting other city staff trained.
Oldham also connected with area businesses about the importance of having employees recognizing who their customers are. He said 50,000 individuals with autism turn 18 each year and many will want to enter the workforce. Two businesses he worked a lot with were Retrieving Freedom in Sedalia and Von Holten Ranch in Mora, who are making strides.
“The purpose of having an Autism Friendly Sedalia is not about catering to one individual or singling out a certain person,” Oldham explained. “It’s about making sure that we can recognize when somebody comes in with a special need, with somebody who’s affected by something like that. And can make their experience as well and as great as an experience as you and I would have there.
“Autism isn't something that makes you different but you learn in a different way,” he continued. “You react in a different way. He (Hayden) still has the same feelings and emotions and thoughts as any person. They respond a little differently to it.”
The final step was making sure all the parts were incorporated and moving in the right direction and having Kehde declare Sedalia as an autism friendly city. The proclamation was meant to happen in April but was postponed due to COVID-19. Oldham said it is more than just a proclamation.
“This now empowers families and it empowers the support groups here in town and the businesses to say our city is behind us 100%,” Oldham said. “They recognize that my son has a special need, has autism and they’re there to help me out as well….It takes a step to empowering the public and those that are affected with autism to say, ‘We recognize you and we support you as well and empower you to move forward just like anybody does.’”
Moving forward, Oldham said he is looking to make sure support groups are empowered and provide them with learning and training materials, which are also for businesses and organizations. He also wants to continue to empower families.
The Sedalia Parks and Recreation Department will host an annual Autism Awareness 5K Fun Run/Walk. The event will happen every April although this year’s will be from 8 a.m. to noon Sept. 5 at Convention Hall due to a COVID-19 postponement.
“This is one of the most important things in my personal life that I wanted personally to get accomplished,” he explained. “Being able to have the mayor declare Sedalia as autism friendly, it was a relief, it was excitement and then it was an awakening of, ‘Alright this is just the beginning let’s go to the next step. Let’s continue the empowerment.’”