Red Coats help grow Jacksonville School for Autism garden program with $10,000 donation

On the stretch of I-95 between Philips Highway and Baymeadows Road on Jacksonville, Florida’s southside, drivers angle to get from point A to B in the least amount of time possible. Between businesses in the area going up and motorists passing through, though, tensions mount as routine congestion rises.

Parallel to that stretch of interstate, just to the east, beyond a dividing line of trees lies in the Gramercy Woods Business Park a powerful place where there are neither rushes nor tensions. Because of the passion and determination of Michelle and Mark Dunham, there are no slowdowns at the Jacksonville School for Autism, either. Every passing second brings achievement, and it’s those achievements which foster both hope and anticipation.

After earning a B.S. degree in Finance from the University of Florida, Michelle worked in banking, which included a stint as a Public Relations vice president. It was in that role that she first experienced community-based charities. In 1992, she began what would become a long career in pharmaceuticals. Early on in that arena, she got up close and personal with adults and children facing mental and developmental disabilities, including autism.


In 1998, Michelle and Mark welcomed their son, Nicholas, to the world. In February of 2000, Nicholas was diagnosed with autism.

At the time of their son’s diagnosis, autism was affecting just one in 250 children. That statistic resulted the Dunham’s fight for services. The stark reality of limited resources prompted Michelle to create something of her own for her son, combining aspects of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, speech and language therapy, motor skills training, sensory integration therapy and play and socialization with peers.

For the record, autism today affects one in every 44 children.

“When Nick was diagnosed, there was very little support in our community,” said Michelle. “Of the programs there were, many focused on only one modality of education. I had the opportunity to put Nick in public school for a short time, but by that point, I had realized was there’s more than one way to teach a child with autism. Each child is so unique and different that we felt like we needed to look at different modalities to best help Nick.”

It was then and there that Michelle entertained the idea of creating something using her business background to help cross fertilize by bringing together different people with different intellectual opportunities.

In August of 2005, Michelle and Mark became the founding parents of Jacksonville School for Autism (JSA), a not-for-profit, full-service K-12 educational center for students and young adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

“When I started JSA, Nick was seven,” Michelle said. “I decided to bring in a more integrative model, so that if there was an expert out there on something, we could utilize that particular train of thought. It was that versus having to say we’re ‘only this’ or only that’. That has been our journey with JSA.”

What started as a grass roots effort has, according to Michelle, become a groundswell for both the school and the community helping them attain those additional programs. JSA serves children and adults from 2 ½ years to 33 years of age.

Jacksonville School for Autism helps individuals with autism, as well as their families, by tapping into all available resources to provide “outside of the desk” thinking. With a focus on nurturing the whole child to reach his or her fullest potential, the individualized and development programs are most effective through involvement from both family and community.

JSA has a variety of classrooms to meet the needs of individual students. These varied programs allow for the successful development of students and ensure comfortable transitions from new learners to advanced learners. More than just a place for learning, JSA has created an environment where relationships grow, and lives are changed.

Upon graduation, many students find themselves without official financial support and/or professional services they can fully rely on. JSA is trying to combat this with their ‘On Campus Enterprises’ programs. When JSA relocated its school and clinic to its more expansive current location, staff and students were afforded the opportunity to expand the vocational gardening program as one of those enterprises.

“At our former location, we started the gardening program as a form of therapy, just to see if the kids would take to it,” said Kayne McPhillips, JSA Garden Program Coordinator. “It ended up being a very powerful form of therapy. Connections were made, there was exercise in it, and from that, endorphins got released. There was just a real sense of pride and purpose from growing their own stuff. It was amazing across the board.”

The JSA gardening program has been going strong for upwards of six years now. When they moved into their current location about two years ago, the first year was all about the building and getting it going. Year two was when McPhillips was able to start focusing back on the garden. Since then, they’ve built such things as raised beds for vegetables, a butterfly garden and an herb-retaining wall.

“In this world as it relates to grants and scholarships, kids lose their resources at the age of 22,” explained McPhillips. “Because of that, they’re dependent on their family nucleus and caretakers to get them through. What we’re focused on now is building systems that give them structure. Once they age out of academics, they start working for the program.”

As part of the process, what they’ve done in the classroom for six years is now something they are taking to the community for the first time. JSA currently has a food trailer and is trying to get a market presence at different farmers markets.

“What that does is put a premium on the infrastructure on campus,” McPhillips said. “It’s critical for them to be able to keep building out, add more raise beds, a greenhouse and all the things that can sustain them to create the product.”

In addition to weekly therapy sessions, markets and community engagement, the on-campus enterprise within the gardening program will include growing and harvesting, cleaning, preparation and production, packaging and labelling, order fulfillment, deliveries and shipping, stocking and preservation. Gardening sessions for the older students focuses more on product development.

“We’ve created an environment with this where we always have a blast together,” McPhillips said of the gardening program. “Half the time, they don’t even realize they’re working. They’re doing what they’ve got to be doing and then 30 minutes later, they realize the time that has passed and talk about how much fun in the garden they’ve had. Across the board, it has been very impactful.”

The PLAYERS Championship's Red Coats is an entity composed of the Championship’s past volunteer chairpersons who oversee an annual grant program to support local charities. Each year, the PLAYERS grant program receives more than 150 applications from Northeast Florida charitable entities. The Red Coats then pair it down by selecting the charities that best fit the PLAYERS core.

“Jacksonville School for Autism checked all the boxes with us,” said Matt Welch, 2022 PLAYERS Championship Tournament Chairman. “You’re talking about children, about education and you’re talking about everything that we like to stand for. It really is such a big community service they perform here, so this was a perfect fit for us.”

On Wednesday, this year’s annual Red Coat Rideout annual check presentations included a visit to Jacksonville School for Autism, not only to learn more about the School, but to donate $10,000 to it.

The funds from the Red Coats grant will support the purchase of raised beds, materials for hydroponics & improvements to existing growing spaces, equipment, supplies & materials needed for processing what is grown, creating our products and then bringing those products to market.

“The Red Coats have been a part of our journey for many years,” said Michelle. “They have supported us in both small and large ways, like the bus they surprised us with many years ago. The Red Coats are such an important part of the Jacksonville community. As a member of this community, I’m just so proud of them and all they do. I’m not just talking about the donation they made to us today, but for all the Northeast Florida charities they support. The impact they make in this community is incredible.”

The drive behind Jacksonville School for Autism is based solely on the belief that every student deserves the opportunity for a happy, safe and motivating experience navigating through educational and interpersonal growth. JSA has also experienced tremendous growth. Not only have the numbers of students and faculty grown, but thanks to organizations like THE PLAYERS Red Coats, the range of services offered by JSA to families impacted by autism has also grown exponentially.

“Today, I feel especially proud, because our garden program really needs the support,” Michelle said. “We have so many plans, but they all take money. We’re getting ready to build a huge aquaponics facility, so the money couldn’t come at a more opportune time for us to help get us into that next step. Every student at JSA will get an opportunity to go through garden, from both education and sensory perspectives.”

“This is awesome for me,” said Welch. “Since I’m at the tail end of Chairmanship, so to get to be able come out and see the good everyone here at Jacksonville School for Autism do is a perfect example of how and where the Red Coats want to help.”

On that stretch of I-95 in Jacksonville, life seems to fly by in the fast lane. Removed from that, on the other side of those dividing trees, though, there’s a much quieter, but more remarkable place devoid of any rush or tension.

And, it’s a place where one won’t have to look very far to find a kid who loves a good carrot, too.