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Entrepreneur grows local autism center: With new building, center looks to triple in size

January 21, 2008

He started his own business and has grown it 17 percent a year.

Now, Indianapolis entrepreneur Jeff Medley is using his know-how to ramp up a not-for-profit autism therapy center he helped found in the summer of 2003.

As president of the Verbal Behavior Center for Autism, Medley led the center's move to a larger building near 96th Street and Keystone Avenue Nov. 1. Now the center is adding students as fast as it can hire therapists to work with them.

With diagnoses of autism growing at 10 percent to 17 percent a year, and with the supply of therapists lagging behind, Medley and the center's leaders are facing the entrepreneur's classic challenge: managing rapid growth.

"In my other business, if the demand was this high, we'd be through the stratosphere," said Medley, who founded Netfor Inc., which provides technical computer support for franchise networks, in 1995.

That kind of business language is common for Medley and his fellow founders, some of whom also are entrepreneurs. But they're also quick to point out that the autism center's bottom line isn't about black ink; it's about bettering lives.

"I've applied a lot of the same skills I do in running my own businesses in running the center," said Chris Clarke, owner of locally based Clarke Engineering Services, who served as the autism center's first president. "But it's not necessarily about making money. It's about making it work."

Each of the founders has a child with autism. Clarke's son no longer goes to the center. But Medley's son, Noah, goes every day. His 10-foot-by-10-foot room is on the second floor of the center's new 16,000-square-foot building.

Noah watched a video in his room one recent day-until therapist Melany Shampo turned it off. She told him he had to play a word pronunciation game with her before he could turn it back on.

"Candy," Shampo said, slowly.

"Candeen," Noah replied, touching his index finger to the left side of his chin, just under his lips. Using that sign language for "candy" helps Noah remember how to say the word.

"Outside," Shampo says.

"Outside," Noah repeated, folding his fingers flat and brushing them by his cheek.

With each word he pronounced correctly, Shampo gave Noah a penny. He stuck them on a card with places for five pennies. When he had all five filled, Shampo gave him the remote control, and he turned the video back on.

The Verbal Behavior Center's one-onone therapy is expensive-about $60,000 a year. When the Verbal Behavior Center started, few families could afford to send their kids there.

But in 2005, Medley and his partners discovered that Indiana is one of 13 states that mandates coverage of autism therapy by employers' health insurance plans.

Suddenly, more parents could afford the center. Fund raising became unnecessary. And the center hired its lead therapist, Carl Sundberg, full time.

"We've got a great business model now," Medley said. The center had 15 students when it moved to its new building. It now has 25 and is shooting for 50.

Sundberg created the curriculum the Verbal Behavior Center uses, and he trains its therapists. Four therapists have obtained advanced training, which they use to train autistic children and their parents in their homes.

"There's a lot of kids out there that are not getting the services," Sundberg said. "Our challenge right now would be getting enough staff."

The center employs 34 people and is looking for more.

The Verbal Behavior Center is not the only center offering applied behavior analysis therapy for autism in central Indiana.

Sundberg used to do therapy at the Little Star School in Carmel. Another facility, the Applied Behavior Center for Autism, is in the Castleton area.

Riley Hospital for Children has a large program at its downtown campus. On Jan. 9, Riley's Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center-named after congressman Dan Burton's autistic grandson-was awarded a $2.2 million grant to expand its services, which already reach more than 600 children.

For Medley, providing behavior therapy to more kids is his religious and vocational mission. He spends 10 to 20 hours a week working on it.

"Once you have your mission, you don't mind spending your life on it," he said.
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