Family impacted by autism funds program to develop leaders, research in caring for developmentally disabled adults

Front row, left to right: Manuel Hernandez, Yolanda S. Hernandez, Dr. Yolangel Hernandez Suarez and Dr. Jeffrey Simmons; Back row, left to right: FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg and FIU Provost and Executive Vice President Kenneth G. Furton

Local doctors Jeffrey Simmons and Yolangel Hernandez Suarez have made a $2 million gift to FIU to establish the Simmons+Hernandez Suarez Fellowship Program at FIU Embrace.

The fellowship will support professionals who take an interdisciplinary approach to solving the complex and multi-faceted issues facing adults with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. One and two-year fellowships will combine research and clinical work with leadership training to help prepare the next generation of leaders for organizations focused on the developmentally disabled. The program also will work to create evidence-based models for “systems of care” to support developmentally disabled adults as they seek to become more fully engaged community members.

For the donors, the mission of FIU Embrace is very personal: Hernandez Suarez, the vice president for clinical innovation at Conviva Care Solutions, and Simmons, a cardiologist and an executive at Humana, have two children who are participants in FIU Embrace. The two doctors are former faculty members of the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and among the founders of FIU Embrace.

“We are delighted to be able to make this planned gift to start the Simmons+Hernandez Suarez Fellowship at FIU Embrace,” said Hernandez Suarez. “As physicians and parents, we know that our current healthcare system does a poor job of addressing the complex needs of adults with autism. We can think of no better partner than FIU Embrace to establish this training program. FIU’s culture of inclusion and innovation will be critical to the success of this fellowship.”

FIU Embrace is one of the only university-based programs in the nation to promote the health, wellness and overall functioning for adults with neurodevelopmental disorders. Started in 2012, the program works to develop a model to integrate adults with developmental disabilities as full participants in the community.

“At FIU we prepare learners to take or create great jobs,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg. “This gift speaks to that imperative.”

Each year, about 50,000 people with autism turn 18, age out of K-12 public education programs and become eligible to enter the workforce. FIU Embrace’s Life and Plus programs prepare students to work in the community through job shadowing and internships, and teach them how to run their own households through supported independent living experiences. College-age individuals attend school with FIU students. Individuals also receive medical care from FIU Health specialists; and their families have access to legal help through the FIU Law Community Lawyering Clinic.

“The leadership among nonprofits, care centers and advocacy organizations focused on the developmentally disabled is aging, and there are not enough new qualified professionals to fill those roles as they become available,” said Nicole Attong, director at FIU Embrace. “In the next decade we hope to produce a dozen fellows who will lead nonprofits that seek to accommodate and integrate individuals with developmental disabilities and conduct research in medicine, public health, psychology and other areas.”

An additional cash gift from Hernandez Suarez’s parents, Yolanda S. and Manuel Hernandez, will allow FIU Embrace to begin the program, recruit and fund the first fellow.

“This gift mirrors FIU’s values of equality and inclusivity, and it will help the university on its mission to provide the community with research-based health and wellness solutions,” said Howard Lipman, the CEO of FIU Foundation, Inc.