At today’s Volunteer Activists luncheon, the Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing Foundation will make an exciting announcement — it has reached its $7 million capital campaign goal to build a new, larger facility, which will be known as the Emerge Center for Communication, Behavior & Development.

“We’re excited and humbled to receive the support of so many community members who have joined our capital campaign,” said Executive Director Melissa Juneau. “This time next year, we will open the doors to the Emerge Center and be able to serve more families and children who are faced with communications disorders and autism.”

The campaign launched in June 2011 and more than 70 donors have pledged their support. In addition, Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing secured New Markets Tax Credits from the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority for the center.

Among those stepping up to raise much-needed funds were Sandi and Chip Robinson, who are receiving the Margaret M. Neely Award at the luncheon.

In January 2009, Sandi Robinson visited Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing in search of services for son Mack, who was diagnosed as a high-functioning autistic at age 2.

“They didn’t have a spot and put us on a waiting list,” she said. “That’s why we needed to build the Emerge Center.”

By that May, a spot had opened and Mack started getting therapy. Sandi Robinson was asked to serve on the board, which provided her with additional information about the need for a larger facility.

“They did a great job with us but they were woefully over stretched by the demands of the community,” said Chip Robinson, adding that before Mack’s diagnosis he didn’t know too much about autism, a general term for a group of complex disorders of brain development. “We wanted to add to that capacity to help serve all those with autism.”

“So, Chip and I created the Battle Against Autism to partner with Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing to build the Emerge Center.

“The numbers are staggering,” said Sandi Robinson. “One in 54 or 55 boys are on the autism spectrum; one in 88 children. So many of them are not able to get services and we know that the earlier you begin therapy the more success you have.”

Battle Against Autism began with a golf tournament at the Country Club of Louisiana in the fall of 2010. The following year, the Robinsons, who co-own Robinson Ford/Lincoln, added a car raffle in conjunction with the tournament. All proceeds from both events are dedicated to autism services provided by Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing and toward building the Emerge Center.

“We’ve met that goal (to build the center) and I’m very excited about that,” said Sandi Robinson. “Now we’re going to focus on establishing a reserve fund … We want to be good stewards of the money the community so graciously gave us to build this center.”

BAA also has as its goal creating an awareness about autism. The year of the first golf tournament, WBRZ-TV donated “a lot” of free media that not only got out the word about the tournament but about autism in general and the need for local services.

“It created a huge awareness,” said Chip Robinson. “People started coming out of the woodwork — my child has autism, my grandchild has autism. It was something nobody was really talking about. The tournament created a groundswell.”

Education is also part of BAA’s mission.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of early learning intervention … it’s life-changing,” said Sandi Robinson, adding that parents often may not recognize the symptoms of autism. “Especially if it’s their first child. They don’t have another child to compare theirs to, so symptoms get missed.”

Missed symptoms mean delayed therapy.

In 2004, Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing had four children in its autism program. By 2012 that number had jumped to 50, with another 100 on a waiting list. Another 2,500 clients were seen in its communication services and audiology program.

The Emerge Center will allow Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing to double the number of children in the autism program and significantly grow its communication, audiology and behavioral services.

It will be the only facility in Louisiana offering an early intervention autism program for preschool children that combines one-on-one intensive treatment with group speech therapy and occupational therapy in a year-round, educational setting.

“Our vision is to become a regional center of excellence that will provide autism, speech and behavioral therapies to children and audiology services for all ages,” said Juneau.

And, the Robinsons want as many people as possible to be able to access those services. Through the Battle Against Autism, they are establishing a scholarship fund.

When the appeal by the mother of one of Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing’s clients is made at today’s luncheon, the Robinsons have agreed to match all donations up to $20,000.

“Preparing them for where they go in the future, that’s what the Emerge Center is all about,” said Sandi Robinson.

Mack is now 6 and his parents consider him “in recovery.”

“Therapy made a huge difference in his life … in our lives,” she concluded. “We still have challenges, but we’re so far from where we were.”