VICCO—I love you — three words that can hold enough meaning to make or break a person, especially for a parent who hears them come from their child — and even more so for one who cannot.
Scott Browning, general dentist at Vicco Dental Center, has a 12-year-old autistic son. Browning said because of his autism, his son is unable to speak or communicate with him or anyone else on his own; however, Browning has recently found a way to help his son.
“When we got acquainted with the iPad and the touch-to-talk, tap-to-talk, and the communication that he can do, we discovered a whole new world,” Browning said.
Browning said now his son can let someone know what he needs or if something is wrong.
“He’s also able now to say ‘I love you,’ and that’s real special to us as parents,” he said.
Since his son was able to make such considerable progress with the help of the iPad, Browning said he began questioning why every student in the special needs program at R.W. Combs Elementary, where his son is enrolled, didn’t have one.
“I used to hammer the school about it,” Browning explained. “Basically, what I found out through channels is they just don’t have enough funding for that program anymore.”
Browning said this realization inspired him to do something in his community to help ensure that every child in a situation like his son’s would be able to have every opportunity open to them, despite economic uncertainty.
“Rather than set still and say well my kid’s got it, we wanted to give back and make sure every kid had an opportunity to have that,” he said.
On Saturday, Browning and the Vicco Dental Center hosted the 2nd Annual Smile Fest in Vicco. What started as a patient appreciation day four years ago has evolved into a fundraiser for autism awareness and the special needs program at R.W. Combs.
“This is the first year that we’ve done the fundraiser. Before we would give all the shirts away and give all the food away, everything was free and the only reason we decided to charge for that is for that very reason,” Browning said.
Live music from local artists like David Toliver of Halfway to Hazard and Midlife Crisis was provided free to the public through the night, along with inflatables for kids. Around $1,200 in proceeds from concessions and sales of T-shirts printed with autism facts were donated to the R.W. Combs special needs program. Appreciation awards were also given out at the event to some educators at R.W. Combs as well as to the family of 12-year-old Taylor Cornett, who died earlier this year.
“She was my son’s peer tutor. She was assigned to my son. She would meet him every morning and make sure that he was taken care of,” Browning explained.
Browning said he wants the entire community to be involved in his event.
“The Parad”ice” people found out about it, and said do you care if we setup our booth, and this is the kind of community we live in, and give our money to that, too,” Browning added. “I love being from the mountain area. People will support a good cause, and this is a good cause.”
Steven Smith, owner of the Parad”ice” shaved ice stand, said he wanted to make sure he could give back to his community that has given so much to his business. Fifty cents was donated to the program for every shaved ice sold that day.
“We wanted to kind of spread our name around the community and I guess kind of help out,” Smith said at the event. “I just hope we have a good turn out and just hope that they get a ton of cash.”
Browning said every little bit helps, and even if someone didn’t make it out to Smile Fest, shirts will still be sold as long as they are available and the program takes donations year round.
“There’s probably, in a school of 500 there’s probably 10 autistic kids. You take that and it costs, between training and the iPads, it’s $4,000 a kid. That’s a lot of money,” Browning explained. “If we can help out and buy one or two iPads from this then God bless it, and I hope that a lot of people start doing that and giving to fund on a local level.”
Another reason Browning said he decided to have this fundraiser was to guarantee the funds donated locally would benefit those in the local community.
“I don’t have nothing against the big walks and stuff that send it for research, but a lot of the times money gets funneled to Washington (D.C.) or other places and never comes back here for our kids,” he said. “This funding should go on a local level to the teachers’ hands who decide what they need and make sure they have the funding to get it.”
Browning said he hopes to continue this event for years to come, with donations increasing enough each year to eventually pay for iPads for special needs programs across the county.
“I would love for it to grow every year, and I would love for this, if nothing else, to make people aware of how many kids have autism,” he said.