Be the Change – Teresa Wolk Hayes

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Teresa Wolk Hayes’ life changed forever on the day that her son was diagnosed with full-spectrum autism more than 20 years ago. Much like the Little Red Hen in the folklore story, Teresa saw a need in the community and decided to do something about it herself.

Her endeavor turned into the Chico nonprofit Little Red Hen. From its beginnings as a plant nursery and pool therapy group for kids with autism, Little Red Hen now has five retail locations and employs 150-170 people (depending on the season), including 115 adults with developmental disabilities. They have a 9,000 square foot facility dedicated to children with autism, and offer social play therapy to an average of 100 children each week.

The organization’s mission to build social and work skills and show developmentally disabled people that they matter has had a tremendous impact on hundreds of individuals and families in the Chico area. Kelley Parsons, Senior Manager of Little Red Hen, praises Teresa for her “big heart, generosity, and tenacity, and how she does it with compassion and determination for her son and all the other employees who are served by Little Red Hen.” 

art-1215-btc3How did you get involved in your work with children and families?

I started Little Red Hen because of my son, Alex. He was diagnosed with full spectrum autism when he was 3 years old, and I immediately got a crash course in all things autism. Before my kids came along, I had worked as a trauma nurse and seen a lot of intense situations, but nothing could really prepare a parent for this. As I started to connect with other parents, I realized that I had access to a lot of resources that they didn’t. In rural areas there are quite a few children with autism but not very many services for them. One way I coped with the stress was gardening, it was the one area where I could escape. I noticed that my son responded well to computers so I started to gather computer parts, and soon I was growing plants in my nursery and selling them to buy more computer parts.

A small group of other parents of kids with autism would come over to swim in our pool and have respite while the kids were enjoying their swim class.

Laura Larson, executive director of Far Northern Regional (a nonprofit dedicated to people with developmental disabilities) came to my home and told me they wanted to fund what I was doing. They wanted me to move everything to a place that was more accessible. Laura is a visionary who continues to inspire me.

After that, things just fell into place. A generous family offered to donate land in town to set up the nursery, the city approved the zoning, and I hired my first employee, who was disabled. I always wanted to help my son so I’ve actually been really selfish. But as moms, aren’t we supposed to be able to lift tractors off our kids?

art-1215-btc2And have you succeeded in helping your son?

Yes – Alex is now the financial manager for Little Red Hen.

He does the payroll for 170 employees, and will soon graduate from California State University, Chico. He does taxes, bill paying, etc., but most interesting is he has three men with autism who work under him as financial assistants. 

When he was little, I was told that he would never succeed, that he would have to be institutionalized in his future. I attribute his healing to my having the resources of money, education and time. He is a hard, hard worker and I give his drive a lot of credit. I say “it takes a village” to raise a child with autism – I had a village.

What is your current favorite quote or life philosophy? 

I have two in this category – I have always had the personal philosophy of “There but for the grace of God go I.” Despite all the difficult things I’ve been through in my life, it’s just something that resonates with me and gives me empathy for others in difficult situations.

My other favorite quote comes from Mother Teresa, who said “I know that God won’t give me anything I can’t handle, I just wish he wouldn’t trust me so much.” That one comes up during the hard times, but also reminds me that I can handle whatever comes my way. 

To contact Teresa Wolk Hayes call (530) 897-0100 or email info@littleredhen.org. To learn more about Little Red Hen visit  www.littleredhen.org. 

About Phoenix Lawhon Isler

Phoenix Lawhon Isler lives in Mount Shasta with her husband and daughter. She has spent much of her life as a student but decided a PhD was a good stopping point.

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