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Meet Janet Ward

Born: Warner Robins, GA. Currently lives in Forsyth, GA. Occupation: Recreation Ministry Administrative Assistant, Ingleside Baptist Church; Co-founder, Central Georgia Autism

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Oftentimes, media representation of what it’s like to parent an autistic child paints a bleak, isolated picture – children ‘trapped’ behind their diagnosis, unable to interact with their families or the larger world; parents sad and struggling, wondering what could have been if only things were different. As parent to a happy, hilarious autistic daughter, this portrayal vexes me to no end – it’s untrue, it’s unfair, and it can be damaging to the children it’s misrepresenting and their families alike. I’m endlessly grateful that, when my girl was first diagnosed six years ago, I was introduced almost immediately to the immeasurably helpful local group Central Georgia Autism and its exuberant, joyful co-founder Janet Ward. Janet and her son Peyton – diagnosed at 18 months, now 13 – are shining examples of how to live your best life not in spite of the challenges you’re given, but because of them; Janet has worked hard to build a life here in middle Georgia full of community, activity, and happiness for herself and her son, and the payoff is evident in the gratitude and joy she radiates always.

Janet was born and raised in Warner Robins, daughter of an Air Force father, but has since moved to Forsyth – “I like living out in the country,” she says, “but my life, work, and happiness are all in Macon.” Much of that happiness comes from the home away from home Janet has found at Ingleside Baptist Church. “The cool thing about Ingleside is that there’s a fit for everybody from any walk of life,” Janet says. “We love and accept everyone! I can put on my cowboy boots and flannel shirt and walk into church and be accepted and loved just as much as if I were wearing heels and a dress.” As the Recreation Ministry Administrative Assistant at IBC, Janet is able to help others find that feeling of acceptance via the many sports, fitness, and fellowship activities available. Upward Sports – kids’ soccer, basketball, and cheerleading leagues – are offered for the community, and for church members (and their guests) there are classes available in Zumba, yoga, even pottery. “We’re so blessed to have a church that believes in recreation the way Ingleside does,” says Janet. “I love my boss, Jon Kitchens – he’s the Associate Recreation Minister, and I have the most respect for him – he’s a great leader and together we work hard to build community, achieve excellence, and share the love of Jesus in all things.”

That sense of community wasn’t always a given in Janet’s life. Back in 2004, after her son Peyton had just been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, Janet found herself sitting alone with her thoughts in a waiting room as her son received occupational therapy. “This was maybe our second visit, and emotionally I was still trying to figure everything out,” she says. “I felt a little disgruntled because there was nowhere in our area to turn to for help.” She jolted back to reality when the waiting room door opened and in walked Lisa Duckworth, a high school friend Janet hadn’t seen in twenty-five years. Turns out Lisa’s son had just been diagnosed as well, and, as any parent to a special needs child knows, that’s an easy, quick recipe for a strong camaraderie and bond. Janet invited Lisa and her son over for Christmas cookies and coffee, and that’s when the group now known as Central Georgia Autism got its start. “Even though we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like, and even though one or the other of us might miss a board meeting,” Janet says, “I always think of us as co-founders of CGA because of the way this all started.”

Central Georgia Autism is now a thriving nonprofit that offers support and assistance for families living with autism in a variety of ways, foremost of which is the scholarships offered on a yearly basis. Up to $500 of grant money is awarded on a case-by-case basis to help families pay for needed equipment or therapies. CGA also hosts Moms’ Night Out – so mamas can get out and enjoy dinner and conversation with likeminded folks – several times a year, a mom’s retreat twice a year (once at the beach, once in the mountains), Splash Night at High Falls Water Park every summer (the whole park is rented out and attendance is reserved for mid-Georgia families with a child on the spectrum), and a beloved yearly Christmas party – this year will be the 10th annual – featuring inflatables, games, food, door prizes, a patient and understanding Santa Claus, and so much more. Julie Evans and her local boutique Karats & Keepsakes hosts the yearly Cocktails & Cupcakes event as a fundraiser for CGA, and next May will bring the 5th annual Journey Ride for Autism – a cycling event and fundraiser that’s also the only century ride (100 miles) that takes place in middle Georgia.

Bicycling has unexpectedly come to play an important role in Janet’s life since the inaugural Journey Ride. That first year, Janet was struggling – her mother had just passed away and she was still grieving that loss, and she had also been trying for what felt like forever to help her son learn to ride a bike on his own, but progress was slow going. Fast-forward to now, when both mother and son adore active outdoor time spent on their bikes. For Janet, biking is good for her body, mind, and spirit – “When I’m on a bike, I feel closer to the Lord and my mind is free,” she says. “No worries, no stress. It relieves me and gives me peace.” Janet loves urban riding – “mixing a little concrete with a little offroad riding,” she says. Biking through downtown Macon down to the RIverwalk and back behind Central City Park is one of her favorite rides – she loves being able to take in the city in that way.

A decade ago, the Janet that sat in that therapy waiting room worrying about her son’s future would be thrilled to see how her life has turned out – Peyton is happy and high-functioning, fully mainstreamed in school and an active part of society, and through CGA, Janet and other board members help parents of newly diagnosed kids connect with resources to help their children be their best, happiest selves. Janet has found an accepting, nurturing church home that led to a beloved job, and she discovered a leisure activity – biking – that also helps her take care of herself physically and mentally. She has the confident, winning demeanor of someone who is at peace. When asked where she’d take a friend from out of town to show them her favorite middle Georgia things, she answers exuberantly – “We’d go to the Rookery for Walden Greenback burgers! That’s the best burger around. Then we’d take in a show and some history at Cox Capital Theater or the Grand Opera House. Then – you can’t leave Macon without going up to Coleman Hill. That’s a view that really captures Macon beautifully, so I’d wanna show that off. That would be Saturday. On Sunday morning I’d put on my cowboy boots and flannel shirt and take them to visit my church!”

For more information about CGA, visit them on Facebook at Central Georgia Autism Ltd. or on the web at www.centralgaautism.org, and for more info about Ingleside Baptist Church, please visit www.ingleside.org

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