As a young person, I traveled, spending a lot of time in India and backpacking around Alaska. I figured I’d live in a cabin in the Rockies and spend much of my time hiking, hanging out in nature, and meditating. I even met my husband, Bruce, at a meditation center.
But the truth is, I barely ever have a quiet moment—and I never go hiking. At 46, my life isn’t what I thought it would be. It’s better.
Three years after our daughter Grace was born, I gave birth to our son, Jay. When Jay was about 2-and-a-half years old, Bruce and I started to suspect that something wasn’t right. We thought he should be talking more. He interacted differently with toys—constantly holding them but rarely playing with them.
When Grace was in kindergarten, we talked to a speech therapist at her school about Jay. After having him evaluated, we learned he was, indeed, delayed. When he was 3, we enrolled him in special education.
but that didn’t last long. He had a major regression and lost all speech. He began running around the house screaming and engaging in other behaviors he’d never displayed before.
When Jay was diagnosed with autism, we were devastated and heartbroken. I wanted to hole up in a dark room and cry, but Bruce and I knew we had to pull it together and be advocates for our son. We consulted with a mother of an autistic child who told us step-by-step what to do to get help. We were able to get a significant amount of services for our son because we wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
We’ve worked hard to give Jay the best possible life, to keep him safe. That’s why we were mortified in 2011 when Jay got lost at his school. Another mother found him alone on the grounds, just inside the gate. She knew Jay and how to approach him. She was able to take him by the hand and escort him to the office. Another time he got lost at camp.
These frightening situations prompted us to found If I Need Help, a nonprofit organization aimed at keeping children and adults—especially those with special needs—safe in potentially dangerous situations.
When we came up with the idea for If I Need Help, Bruce and I were brainstorming; looking for ways to keep people like our son safe in emergency situations. It was then—when we were open and seeking—that this divine idea was able to land.
We created a variety of products—everything from patches to pins, clips to shoe tags— each with a special QR code. When the person is found, the code can be scanned by a smartphone or tablet, or their number can be entered on our website to access pertinent information in an emergency. These products can, quite literally, save lives.
A woman named Denise Carter shared a heartwrenching story on her Facebook page, “And Then They Grow Up.” Denise was driving to McDonald’s with her adult son, Matthew, who has Down syndrome, autism, and is nonverbal. A woman talking on a cell phone ran a red light and hit Denise’s car at 40 mph. Although Denise was incapacitated, she was alert enough to know that her son, while unhurt, wouldn’t be able to communicate anything about himself, including his name.
Denise discovered our company after the accident and told her Facebook followers about our products. Her story, posted on our ifineedhelp.org website, went viral. In just a few days, we had more than a thousand orders and membership on our website quadrupled. I couldn’t think about the magnitude of what was happening. I focused instead on being thankful— and on making our new customers feel special.
I’ve had a lot of sadness about my son’s disability, but my faith has remained steadfast. Through our nonprofit, I believe we’re serving a higher purpose—one I could never have imagined for myself.
At 13, our Jay is a big boy. He just started junior high. He finds joy in blowing bubbles. He loves to run and jump. He enjoys watching and caring for people. He likes to feed me.
But Jay also has a lot of anxiety. We drive around the canyons around our home in Santa Clarita, California, because it’s one of his favorite pastimes. When he’s escalating, I start to chant. While he’s very low verbal, Jay comes into the chant. Before long, he’s peaceful again.
Sometimes when he’s agitated, I’ll have him sit on the couch, put his hands in his lap, close his eyes, and meditate. While he doesn’t stay there long, it changes his entire demeanor. These kinds of experiences tell me he’s a very spiritual young man.
I’ve always felt that at the end of my life, I’m going to say it was Jay who brought me to my purpose in life.
Erin Wilson is cofounder of the nonprofit ifineedhelp.org with her husband Bruce. Their son Jay has severe autism and had gotten lost in the past. Creating If I Need Help has been a labor of love to protect him and others who have special needs.