With Goodwill’s Help, Lewisburg Woman With Autism Transforms Into ‘Social Butterfly’
LEWISBURG — On July 6, 2019, Kylie will marry her fiancé, Austin, a kind, supportive young man she met in high school. Kylie has a job she loves, where her boss thinks highly of her. And Kylie recently bought a reliable car with her earnings.
“I am a social butterfly. I am so talkative and chatty that people are like, ‘Uh-huh, umm, OK,” she says, smiling. “I don’t have a problem talking to anyone.”
At 24, Kylie seems to have it all together. She has drive, confidence and purpose. But not so long ago, her situation and outlook were quite different.
At age 15, Kylie became socially withdrawn. Her parents searched for answers, and eventually Kylie received a diagnosis: Asperger syndrome — a form of autism. Also known as autism spectrum disorder, autism refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. One in 68 children is on the autism spectrum, and autism affects more than 70 million people worldwide.
In 2012, Kylie’s family moved from North Carolina to Chapel Hill, Tenn. Leaving her friends and old school behind was “the worst thing in the world for me,” Kylie says. The saving grace at her new high school was Austin, who has a hearing impairment and was one grade behind her.
“He was the first one to talk to me and make me feel comfortable,” she recalls.
Kylie struggled in her classes but graduated in 2014 — a “major accomplishment,” she says.
Kylie learns quickly and, once taught, always follows those instructions to the letter. But she sometimes becomes extremely anxious and makes mistakes when asked to do things a different way.
“Kylie sees everything in black and white,” her mother, Jennifer Lewis, explained. “She’s a creature of habit. Others can skip from A to C, but for Kylie it always needs to be A-B-C.”
After graduation, Kylie took some college art classes, but college wasn’t for her. She tried a few jobs, but they didn’t work out. She seemed stuck.
In 2016, Kylie went to live on campus at the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center in Smyrna — to learn more about her disability, gain life skills and take classes in the Business Education program.
Kylie did well and graduated from the program early. She then landed a job at a call center. But her supervisors were unwilling or unable to provide the extra time and support she needed to become more proficient, and she lost the job.
“She really struggled with that,” Kylie’s mom says. “She just didn’t think there was a place for her. She was depressed a lot.”
Kylie remained unemployed until August of 2017, when Austin’s mother — a regular shopper at the Goodwill store in Lewisburg — mentioned that the store was hiring. Kylie applied and was quickly called in for an interview by the store’s former manager, Vicki Mpagi.
“Her personality was so positive — I wanted that, because it rubs off on everyone else,” Vicki recalls.
Kylie’s first several weeks as a donations processor were rocky. But Vicki took Kylie under her wing. She was patient with Kylie and gave her specific guidance to overcome specific problems. She also pushed Kylie to improve.
“When she would come into the office and say she was going to ‘try her best,’ I said, ‘No you’re not. You’re going to get back out there and do it,’” Vicki recalls.
Soon, Kylie was meeting and exceeding expectations. Vicki calls Kylie her “go-getter.” Kylie enjoys her duties and has gained confidence and a new sense of purpose.
Kylie’s mom says working at Goodwill has changed Kylie in many ways, opening her eyes to how much she is capable of achieving.
“She has learned to drive, which is something she was afraid to do before,” Jennifer says. “I think it has to do with the job — learning to do what she didn’t think she could do. It’s been nothing but positive.”
Kylie says she hopes one day to move into management at Goodwill, and Vicki is confident Kylie can continue to grow and achieve her dreams. But for now, Kylie is happy to have found a place to belong, where she can be part of helping others change their lives for the better.
“I love Goodwill,” Kylie says. “Goodwill accepts you for who you are. If you believe in yourself, you’ll go far. Look at me — where I am today.”
April is Autism Awareness Month dedicated to raising awareness and dispelling myths and misconceptions about the condition, which is estimated to impact one in 60 children. Goodwill shared the story of Kylie, who works at the Lewisburg location, and her successes when presented with the opportunity to thrive.