“A good leader is one worth following”


Lisa: A good leader is one worth following. It is critical to focus on developing your team as well as your business, to live your values so that others can learn by example and know that you mean them, and to lead with compassion and not fear.

Susan: A good leader has a strong vision of what should be and the skills necessary to motivate, inspire, and reward others to bring that vision to life.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Lane & Susan Sachs.

Lisa Lane and Susan Sachs are the Co-Founders and Co-Executive Directors of Project HOPE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides a lifespan of services to the autism community. They met as two moms looking for services for their young sons, and when they couldn’t find what they needed they created it together. What started as a small preschool, 25 years ago, has grown to 8 campuses across 4 counties in South Carolina, offering autism services across all ages and across the spectrum, including therapy, education, adult services, and community engagement.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Lisa: At my older son’s 4-year-old birthday party, I was brought face-to-face with the reality that something was not as it should be with my younger son. While Colby should have been enjoying the people and activities around him, he was instead completely absorbed in playing with pots and pans. I discussed my concerns with my pediatrician, who also happened to be my cousin, and he mentioned autism as something to consider. Coincidentally, a presentation about an autism treatment, Applied Behavior Analysis, was being held in a neighboring city and I decided to go listen — just in case. Within a short period of time of listening to other parents around me talking about their children, I knew Colby had autism and I was in the right place.

Susan: When my son, Michael, was diagnosed with autism, there simply were no services available for him in our community. I just could not accept that there was nothing I could do to help him. It was frustrating and heartbreaking! We tried Speech and Occupational Therapy, but Michael made no headway at all. None of those precious lost skills were returning. He just kept slipping further and further away. Then, my Service Coordinator invited me to observe a training that demonstrated a treatment known as Applied Behavior Analysis. Within an hour, I knew that this therapy was what Michael needed, what he had to have. At this observation, I met Lisa Lane, and within a few months, Project Hope Foundation was created.

Can you share the most interesting story that’s happened to you since you began leading your organization?

Lisa: Several years into our organization, I attended a Christmas party where I met a local contractor who asked me about PHF. He was not married and had no children. He listened attentively as I talked about autism and Project HOPE. Shockingly, the next morning, he rang my doorbell and handed me a check that would fully scholarship two of our students. He came back a few days later with another check. That man is now our Board Chair and he continues to advocate for our families even though he has not been personally impacted by autism.

Susan: Connections are everything in the nonprofit world, and we never miss a chance to tour visitors through our facilities. After Lisa and I were approached by a supporter from a neighboring city about expanding our services to his town, we hosted a group of his contacts for a “Lunch and Learn” in our Woodruff Clinic. This visit was followed by several trips to Greenwood looking for affordable, workable space. We could not find one that provided the space we needed at a price we could afford. One of the individuals who toured the Woodruff Clinic connected us to a friend of his who understands the needs and challenges of autism because he has a grandson on the spectrum. At the end of the tour, he simply asked “What can I do?” Our reply, “Find us some space!” By the next week, he’d found a 58,000 square foot building, bought it, and turned it over to us to use. He continues to be one of our biggest supporters!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson did you learn from that?

Lisa: It’s not really a mistake, but in some respects, it is funny that two women who knew nothing about running a school decided to start one, and 25 years later, that school is still successfully serving students on the autism spectrum. What we learned is that when you combine a dire need with two passionate moms, it leads to action and opportunity.

Susan: About a year after we started Project HOPE, I found myself in need of a new transmission for my car. My husband was working overseas and I was pretty much operating as a single mom to a child who did not sleep. To say I was exhausted was an understatement. So, when the auto shop owner called to tell me there would be another delay in installing the new transmission, I lost it. It was not one of my finer moments to say the least. About a month later, I was invited to speak at a Christian Men’s Pancake Breakfast. Guess who greeted me when I arrived?!? The auto shop owner, of course! He ate pancakes and I ate crow! The lesson I learned was to always be kind. Nothing is worth losing your temper over.

Please describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact:

Lisa: We are working hard to change the way charitable organizations are viewed in the world of grants and donations. In the business world, all aspects of operation are considered as cogs in the same wheel. Salespeople cannot sell without product access and availability; manufacturing cannot produce efficiently and effectively without accurate sales forecasts; infrastructure is an investment in the business. In the non-profit world, these same tenets do not apply.

Non-profits are penalized for overhead. Grants often ask for the overhead percentage as the key measurement of success; organizations are rewarded for new programs rather than shoring up necessary, existing programs; employees entering the non-profit world expect — and do — receive insufficient compensation for their work because they have “the heart for it.” Non-profits need to be able to build sustainable business models that can keep the best people working for important causes, with the pertinent measurement being the impact on the community served.

Susan: Through our mission to provide a lifespan of autism services that span ages, needs, and programs, we are giving individuals with autism and their families choices: choices that are based upon their wants and needs, not on what someone else thinks they should do or want. We provide choices in interventions, in education, in job training, and hopefully soon, in housing. We collaborate with other organizations and individuals within the community to broaden the scope of what we can do and who we can reach. We listen to our clients and their families. We want our services to be relevant to their needs and we often go against the tide if that is what it takes to meet their needs.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Lisa: “Jane,” one of our former students, came to us as a middle-schooler who struggled with autism, dyslexia, and short-term memory issues. Academics were challenging and she simply did not understand the value of relationships. Getting her high school diploma was a milestone that her parents feared she would never reach. “Jane” loved dogs and began working with a dog-training organization. Through her dog, she began to connect meaningfully with others and soon realized that she wanted to work with children with autism. She felt she could understand them in a way non-autistic people could not. “Jane” applied to become a Registered Behavior Technician with our organization. With support from Project HOPE’s clinical team and leadership, she has continued to prosper in our organization, now working as a Senior Therapist. She has achieved a level of independence she did not believe was possible. Happily, “Jane” has a bright future with Project HOPE Foundation, and she is making a huge impact in the lives of so many others with autism. So not only has she been helped by our cause, she is now helping that same cause herself.

Susan: We began serving “John” before age 3, a time that maximizes the impact of treatment. ABA therapy is intensive and absolutely impacts the family at every level. His parents did everything right despite the amount of stress it placed on every member of the family. The first time I met “John,” he was under a table, refusing to come out. That scenario characterizes his journey through our ABA therapy and school programs. He was challenging and obstinate. He was also creative and endearingly quirky. Many school days included visits to the office to calm down. Happily, “John” was able to transition into a mainstream education at middle school. By high school, he no longer carried an autism diagnosis. He had a close-knit group of friends who shared a love of robots. Today, he is attending community college and working part-time. He works in customer service, solving problems for customers and co-workers. He has hobbies, friends, and a bright future! He’s a glowing example of how much Project HOPE Foundation’s services can help our friends on the autism spectrum, especially with early intervention.

What are three things the community/supporters/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Lisa:

  1. Recognize that the needs of individuals with autism are different than the needs faced by individuals with other challenges; a “special needs” category is simply too broad.
  2. Understand that autism affects not just the child and the family; it affects the entire community financially and socially.
  3. Understand that with the appropriate treatment, nearly all individuals with autism can make significant progress towards independence and productivity; almost 50% can progress to the point of no longer needing services.

Susan:

  1. Understand that autism is a spectrum disorder which means that one size does not fit all when it comes to providing services.
  2. Provide adequate funding so that children can receive the services they need at diagnosis to maximize outcomes
  3. Focus on what’s right for your state and community, not just on what’s right for your party.

How do you define “Leadership”? Please explain what you mean and/or give an example:

Lisa: A good leader is one worth following. It is critical to focus on developing your team as well as your business, to live your values so that others can learn by example and know that you mean them, and to lead with compassion and not fear.

Susan: A good leader has a strong vision of what should be and the skills necessary to motivate, inspire, and reward others to bring that vision to life.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me…” before you started your organization and why? Please explain each one and share a story or example for each:

Lisa:

  1. The most generous people you will meet may not be the ones you expect.
  2. Always remember why you are doing this.
  3. What others think is not as important as what you think.
  4. Anything is possible. Really.
  5. Happiness is an important part of success

Susan:

  1. You may not always get what you want, but you will always get what you need.
  2. Don’t let your own child get lost in the process.
  3. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  4. It’s not your responsibility to fix everyone else’s problems.
  5. Always have a plan B.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Lisa: Acceptance of one another. What we can accomplish is limitless if we just work together. It’s hard to work together when you’re too busy judging one another.

Susan: Be kind to one another. Kindness is transformational.

What is your favorite “life lesson” quote”? Please explain how that quote is relevant to you in your life:

Lisa: Technically, the glass is always full: half water and half air. That quote reminds me that resources aren’t always recognizable at first glance.

Susan: It is what it is. I have learned that things won’t always be the way I want them to be, but they will be the way they are. Recognizing that makes it easier to accept and move forward.

Who’s the person with whom you would most like to have lunch? Why?

Lisa: Tony Robbins. Over the years, his teachings have been a solid source of motivation and inspiration for me.

Susan: My Mom. She was the person closest to me and I lost her a couple of years ago. I would give almost anything to have the opportunity to share our favorite meal together one more time.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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