#084: The Eagles Autism Foundation: Interview with Executive Director Ryan Hammond
When Ryan helped begin the Eagles Autism Foundation, her vision for it was much bigger than a one-off event, and that vision has touched nearly every part of the team’s life. From a stadium that has a sensory-friendly room for those who need some time to get away from the noise, to Swoop the mascot sometimes wearing sensory headphones, to Saturday Sensory Projects broadcast for everyone to enjoy, the Eagles team has really embraced their new mission.
The pandemic has caused the foundation to shift some of its focus, but they’ve discovered that the move to more virtual outreach helps them reach even more people than ever before. The Eagles 2020 Autism Challenge will even be virtual this fall, and it’s a great opportunity to see this foundation in action.
I was so excited to learn about the foundation because I think that it can provide a model for other organizations to follow. Even if they can’t fundraise on the same level as the Philadelphia Eagles, the Eagles Autism Foundation has so many great ideas for how to reach out and serve the autism community with inclusivity and thoughtfulness.
If you’d like to apply for one of their $25,000 community grants or just be a part of their foundation, I encourage you to reach out to them on their website or social media channels.
Ryan Hammond is the Executive Director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. What began as the Eagles Autism Challenge in September of 2017 has evolved into so much more than a single day and signature fundraising event. This next step boldly showcases the continued commitment to autism and leverages the Eagles’ platform to change the lives of those affected by autism. This new foundation allows unity among all efforts and intensifies the impact throughout the year. In just two short years under Hammond’s leadership, the Eagles Autism Foundation has raised over $7M with 100% supporting autism research and care, opened the Sensory Room presented by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with the certification of Lincoln Financial Field as sensory-inclusive and launched inclusion efforts around employment and fan engagement within the Philadelphia Eagles organization. Hammond strives to shift autism awareness to action and serve as a model for others.
Hammond has spent over a decade committed to improving the lives of those affected by autism and previously served as the Executive Director of the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph’s University. She established a management and organizational structure for the Center while stewarding important fundraising relationships, building strong corporate and community partnerships, creating dynamic programs, and balancing community need with strategic growth and resources.
Under Hammond’s leadership, the Kinney Center – which trains autism professionals and supports individuals touched by autism – emerged as a strategic asset and top priority for the university.
A native of Delaware County, Hammond received a Bachelor of Science degree from Neumann University and holds an Executive MBA from Saint Joseph’s University. She is married to Charles Hammond IV and has three daughters, Taylor, Payton, and Charlie.
Hammond was recognized as a Women on the Move from Mainline Today, featured on Her Story, serves as a member of the Kinney Center Advisory Board, and has been featured in local and national media around the Eagles Autism Foundation. She previously held positions on the Commission of the Status of Women Board and Women’s Leadership Council at Saint Joseph’s University.
- How the Eagles Autism Foundation has adapted to help the autism community throughout the pandemic.
- How you can get involved with this great organization.
- The different ways the Eagles Autism Foundation has embraced the autism community through cheer clinics, employment opportunities, sensory rooms, community grants, and more.
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Transcript for Podcast Episode: 084
The Eagles Autism Foundation: Interview with Executive Director Ryan Hammond
Hosted by: Dr. Mary Barbera
Mary: You're listening to The Turn Autism Around podcast episode number 84. I'm your host, Dr. Mary Barbera, and I am thrilled that you are tuning in to listen to another episode. Today, I am interviewing Ryan Hammond, who is the executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. And it's really an amazing interview. She talks about all the work at the Autism Foundation through the Eagles organization. The research they're doing, the outreach. And she also talks about some of the challenges for her organization and others with the COVID pandemic. So please help me welcome Ryan Hammond.
Mary: So thanks for joining us today, Ryan. I'm so happy to meet you and be able to talk to you today.
Ryan: Thanks so much for having me. Excited to have a nice conversation and talk about my experience in autism and learn from you as well.
Mary: Right. So the first question always for those listeners that have listened to multiple interviews is describe your fall into the autism world.
Ryan: So it's interesting that you say fall into the autism world, because that's kind of exactly what happened. It was really happenstance that brought me to autism over a decade ago. And I mean, it's really become my life's passion in the work that I'm doing. So I started my career actually at the Philadelphia Eagles in marketing and had three daughters within thirty six months. And, you know, working in the NFL at that point just was a demanding job. And I wanted to continue working, but I thought about where can I go that feels like this organization? Bigger than yourself, you know, feels just like you're a part of something that matters?
Ryan: And I happened to go to St. Joseph's University. And just at that time, there was a family about to found the Autism Center with a seven-million-dollar gift. And when they were talking to different people, I mean, I was the last one in the door and they were talking to different folks about their skill sets. I think coming from the Eagles and having connections in Philadelphia made me a unique person for the university because I wasn't just this person who worked in academics and had this higher ed background. I had connections to the community. So kind of the conversation evolved when I talked to the family. We hit it off immediately. I mean, they shared with me they were inspired to found a center because of their son, because they felt like they had the resources to support him. But what about these other families?
Ryan: And the other piece of it, which I thought was really amazing, was they recognized through their personal experiences that the teachers in the schools, they didn't necessarily know about autism. And their son was the only one in the classroom at the time. And they were going in and training. And how much better would it be for other families if teachers knew how to work with individuals with autism before they had their first person in their class? So I think that model of training future professionals by way of supporting and serving families just became, for me, a really unique mission. And I mean, I was able to take it and run with it.
Ryan: So we expanded the program on campus. We had a BCBA program with practicum students. So I felt like we were in a position to deliver really high quality programs to families at low cost of entry and give these students experience that were just really transformational. And all the while, I think, you know, I just got sucked in and it was personal for me because now I'm working so closely with this family and I have the ability to, you know, as a working mom, my daughters became peer mentors for kids with autism and they've gotten involved in the community. So it really is become a family affair. And we've all grown, you know, as not only a professional, but as a family in our commitment, to autism. So it's been pretty special.
Mary: Wow. So what year was this that the Kinney Center started?
Ryan: So I went to St. Joe's in 2008 and I worked to help open the center in 2009.
Mary: OK. And the center is still going strong now, right?
Ryan: It's still going strong. And, you know, although I have moved on from executive director there and gone to the Philadelphia Eagles, I stayed on their advisory board and continue to help them grow and provide support wherever I can. Again, when it went it feels so close to you, you just can't help but continue to support them.
Mary: Yeah. And I am from Pennsylvania as well, which we chatted about, an hour from Philadelphia. So I am very familiar with St. Joseph's University has a center. Westchester has a center. LaSalle has a center. I'm sure that lots of universities around the country have autism centers. And I'm just wondering, for those listeners who are literally around from around the world, is the Kinney center. Does that provide any anything for families outside of Philadelphia or is it it pretty much Philadelphia centered?
Ryan: So I think, you know, this obviously is a changing time and it's allowing us all to adapt and expand our services beyond our zip codes. So I think when Kinney started, it was about bringing in students. I mean, we had, you know, as far as California students coming in for our college support program. So we definitely were making a poll in the higher ed space for those students with autism attending college. And then we even saw in some of our summer camps that became a destination because we had families flying and staying with other family members to be able to participate in our camps. But I will say that, you know, I paid close attention to everything we've done in response to our current situation, we're dealing with a global pandemic. And they started to move things online.
Ryan: And I think they saw an advantage to be able to offer these services and tool kits to families to have access to these BCBAs who are willing to give lessons on how to accomplish tasks, how to work within behaviors and give parents tools that they can, you know, otherwise maybe they didn't have that firsthand look and they were always putting that on the therapy that their child was involved in. And now I think everyone is operating different. So while they've been very much in the past delivering services to those who were able to come physically to the Kinney Center, I think, you know, this certainly creates opportunity.
Ryan: And I know the one thing is that they're expanding the college support program to support students in any college that just needs that program, which is, you know, from the support with their counseling and how to manage their schedules, how to do social accommodation plans for professors, but be able to expand that beyond. If you were just going to St. Joe's. And I think really that's just the beginning. OK.
Mary: Well, yeah, I think that's the way of the world online learning. And we see, I started my online courses five years ago, more than five years ago. And with the whole COVID pandemic crisis, it's showing parents and professionals how easy it is to learn online, especially because my courses are filled with videos of me working with kids with autism and without autism. And they're able to like step by step, go through it.
Mary: And we just had up our podcast guests just a couple of weeks ago, Michelle, and she described like it was her daughter's diagnosis right at the age of two. It was the COVID shut down. She joined my course six weeks later. She went from a three-month-old language age ability to a 30-month-old. And she was the only person working with her daughter. There was no other therapists involved because it was shut down. Yeah. So people are really, especially parents, are really seeing some of the great strides they can make with their own children in their houses.
Mary: Until they can get professional services or even in the beginning before they even have a diagnosis. And so I totally agree that you can change many lives online. So I'm happy to see that. I'm happy to hear that the kidney center is moving in that direction as well. OK. So at some point a couple of years ago, you moved back to the Philadelphia Eagles football team organization to work with them. And so why did you decide to move back and what was the project that you were called to work on?
Ryan: So it's interesting. The Eagles, they I, I was there to start my career for about ten years before I went to St. Joe's and I was there two thousand eight. And at this point it was 2017. So put a lot of time in and learned a lot. And like I said, it's basically developed this passion for autism and continued while I was at the scene, chose to stay in touch with the Eagles. And Jeffrey Laurie, the team owner, has a personal connection. So when I saw his article in time, you dropped him a note when I saw something that was interesting.
Ryan: We did an intervention on rapid eating and I thought was really cool. And I sent him a note on how we were able to work with this individual. And just again, finding ways to stay in touch and connected to. Because of that common interest, and that led the Eagles to eventually, under Jeffrey's vision, to start the Eagles autism challenge. He felt that his family supported autism for many years. In fact, his mother has given over one hundred million dollars to autism research.
Mary: Wow. And so he's affected because his brother has autism?
Mary: And how old is the brother? He's an adult, right? And then the mother gave a hundred million dollars for autism research over the years?
Ryan: Over the years, she's given one hundred million dollars and Jeffrey has been involved in her foundation. And I think through that work and through these research projects and seeing these changes being made and I think matching that with. The increased prevalence rate, the need for families that under funding that existed and then you think about what Philadelphia Eagles brand does, it's a unifier. It brings people together. So was there a way to leverage the Philadelphia Eagles to really drive critical resources for autism? But one of the things that I felt like is the greatest thing that we've done is we've made people, you know, OK, with autism.
Ryan: We haven't, you know, put it behind the scenes, we've put it out in front in everything that we do. And something that's sometimes difficult for families to talk to or approach you when their child might need support. We're proactively providing support for whether it's our football clinic. I just had a family reach out and say, you know, normally I would've never been able to bring my kid to a football clinic, but we offered it online. He's an adult. He loves the Eagles. He looked at the visual schedule. He used the social stories. And he had a ball participating with, you know, typical necessarily peers age wise. But just from an experience standpoint, he was able to do it. And we've had similar experiences in person with young girls, nonverbal, with autism, providing resources to participate side by side in our cheer clinics now.
Ryan: So I think that, you know, that's kind of how it started. Is Jeffrey really, he was coming up on twenty-five years of owning the team and I think really wanted this to be a part of his legacy. What he's done in Philadelphia and not just on the football field, but off the field. So Eagles offseason challenge started with an idea, got off the ground, and I think there was different people in the organization kind of trying to advance it forward. And, you know, I ended up having a conversation with the president Don Selinsky and he was like, what do you think about this initiative? What's going on? And I just did like a strategic analysis. And I just said, you know, this is it. We're not selling tickets. This is really, it's not transactional.
Ryan: You need to make this commitment beyond just sign up for this race and raise money. I think you need to really weave it into the fabric of the organization because you have the ability to really move the needle that way. And I think that conversation alone sparked his excitement and my mutually. And it led me to coming back to the organization to take on the executive director role for the foundation. So since then, it's been like hit the ground running. It's been an amazing adventure because it's definitely like every day is different. But I've also been able to essentially have the culture shift and respond to this priority. Everything from, I talk to Coach Peterson and talk to the whole football team about why offseason is important. Before we have events, we're now training players on how to interact with someone on the spectrum who might be nonverbal, who might not want to stand right next to them for a photo, and maybe that like really far away pound or air pound is like that's a win for that family and how just to go with it.
Ryan: So providing that level of education, as I mentioned, providing resources with all of our community experiences and then most importantly, bringing people together and raising money. So since we started our first year, we have the event was 2018. You know, we had over 3000 participants and raised 2.5 million dollars. The one thing that I love about this work is that every dollar we raise, we donate. So we don't keep anything for ourselves. That's really supported through the organization and the dollars that we raise. We actually developed a whole scientific process. So we don't even just like write checks. We actually have people submit proposals. We receive their proposals. I fly in scientists from all over the country who are experts in those content areas.
Ryan: They then back the proposals and then once the top proposals are identified, they're endorsed for funding. So then I am able to have progress reports and check out, you know, from year one or two, are they doing what they said they were doing? And that's contingent for their funding. And, you know, so now fast forward to, you know, having gone through two full events and adjusting to this current situation where we're postponed we've now awarded over six million dollars in just two years and we're funding twenty five different projects. And our projects span pretty strategically from community grants, which are twenty-five thousand dollars grants that really are in are helping the here and now.
Ryan: These are organizations started by parents that, you know, this twenty-five-thousand-dollar gift is going to help them expand. It's going to help them buy transportation for job training. It's going to put an inclusive preschool classroom into, you know, program. It's those types of things. And then we're funding post-doctoral fellowship. So can we attract young researchers into the field of autism with these stock post-doctoral fellowships? And then it's also focusing on clinical and basic science research. So for me, these twenty five projects they're all so different. But we have this now web that we're creating that is just the impact continues to grow by the day. This year, again, everything had to be reimagined, so we would have been celebrating our third Eagles Autism challenge and unfortunately.
Mary: That was supposed to be in May?
Ryan: May sixteenth.
Mary: Yeah. So that all got shut down because of the COVID crisis. And so how did that affect your fundraising, your budget, your people?
Ryan: I mean, it really it forced us to take a step back because we felt like we wanted to be responsible citizens. And while our fundraising was critical and important, then we knew how much this research depended on it. These programs depend on it. We also know that we needed to make sure we were supporting the community. So we kind of stepped back. We stopped asking people to register and donate, and we really just started flipping our content to make sure that families had resources, that we were being able to promote other organizations in the tool boxes that they were putting out there for families. And then we started looking at, you know, what, a young man with autism, we gave them like a Saturday morning segment. And every Saturday with our behavior analyst, we have been asked on our staff, he actually does a sensory friendly activity and we'll have Swoop join them one day or the cheerleaders.
Ryan: And it's everything that you can do at home with your kiddos. You can watch it. You can go through it. So that's something that we started. We also looked at what are people on the spectrum doing who worked and now they're displaced? Right now they're working from home. And this is now an adjustment for them. Employment's a hot topic in autism. So we made sure that we worked with some of the individuals that we're close with to have employment. And we did an interview series with them talking about what it was like for them to just kind of pack up their desks one day and work from home. How are they staying connected to people?
Ryan: What are their challenges? Just so other people could see that they're not alone and that there might be some strategies that these individuals have picked up or, you know, something that the other people in the community might comment with, like recommendations based on kind of the challenges that they talked about. So I will say from March through May, we really shifted our concentration on holding back the fundraising and really just making sure there was community outreach. We were providing resources and we were highlighting other organizations that were doing things really well in terms of engaging with the community. You know, now where we stand is we're actually we postponed the event to September 26. And our hope is that in some way we may be able to bring people together.
Ryan: If we move the kickoff party, it's a virtual event and we move the post ray celebration is virtual. But if we can social distance and put people in groups of 100 for the bike rides and groups in hundreds with staggered starts with the five K. Can we still bring people together? But in the meantime, we have the caveat that if local or state prohibits that, then we would be all virtual on that day. And you know, our plan is to just make sure that people understand that while we may not be together or we may be apart, we're still together. We're still sharing this mission to improve lives. And I'm excited to share that this year. You know, we already raised another three million dollars. So we're approaching 10 million in our first three years.
Ryan: And like I said, you know, and that'll be a whole other piece of me. Bring in our scientists reviewing requests for applications, and then giving out all of that funding as well. So there's been a lot of success. I have to say personally, I was definitely a little bummed out when all of this happened because we were trending for a record year. I thought we were gonna break, you know, attendance from the first two years like nothing out of the water. We were hundreds of people had that we had been in previous years. And even with the fundraising. So, you know, when this happened, I tried just not to get too discouraged. I tried to rally our team and focus on what's important and make sure that we're there and present for the families.
Ryan: We find ways to engage with them. And we're lucky, I talked about leveraging the Eagles. I'm able to do Zoom calls with players and families and have them tune in and ask questions. And it's been really positive because I think we've been very intentional with kind of keeping the connections going. So we'll see what happens in September. Definitely hopeful, but also realistic that, you know, it's not in our hands. Right. We're just going to have to roll with it, as we've been doing for the last few months.
Mary: Yeah, I'm actually a big Philadelphia Eagles fan. Has the NFL decided if they're going to be able to play without fans or is that all still up in the air as well?
Ryan: Yeah, that's definitely up in the air because I think everyone well, I think they want to play. That's obviously first and foremost. And then the fans are so passionate. They want to be in the stadium. And I think, again, they also change the dynamic of our game. So, you know, we want people in the stands. And I think for us to like a lot of the work that I've done, you know, since we started the Eagles some challenge, we've been rebranded as Eagles Autism Foundation because we started doing so much more than just this event. We have a sensory room in our stadium. We have our stadium certified, sensory inclusive. If you are watching the game on TV or if you're in the stadium, you'll see the end zone now, says Eagles Autism Foundation, because we want people to know that's how important our commitment is.
Ryan: When the most important part of the game, when they're going down for a touchdown, kicking a field goal. You literally see the word autism in the center of it. So, I mean, that's for me, something that's so special and part of what we do as well. So it'll be disappointing if we don't have fans there. But I know that they'll do everything they can. But again, making sure that safety is the priority over all.
Mary: Has any other football team in the NFL embraced autism like this?
Ryan: So I haven't seen anyone at the level of it's their number one philanthropic priority. But I will say there is definitely other organizations that are recognizing the need to support the autism community. And by way of opening their own sensory room. I know the Vikings have one. Miami has one. Other stadiums are continuing to develop those spaces. I mean, when we open our sensory room, we actually trained 700 employees on how to recognize guests that could be having sensory challenges. At every guest services, we have sensory bags and we have basically a visual that's like, how am I feeling? And people can kind of point to it and we can provide support and they can be escorted to our sensory room if they need to.
Ryan: I mean, when you think about the NFL and any professional sports, the no reentry rule is a real challenge for families bringing their child or their companion with autism. And we wanted it to feel like a great space, a comfortable space and not like we're putting you in a corner to try and calm down. So the sensory room that we build is, you know, five hundred square feet, state of the art. We worked with Culture City and as presented by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. We have like great beanbags. We have bubbles dripping down our wall. We actually built at Lincoln Financial Field out of Legos. And the guys can come in and stack Legos off our field and put X's and O's on there. So it's pretty spectacular.
Ryan: And the response from the community has been amazing. I mean, the number of parents that said I took a chance and brought my child here because I knew this was available, I never knew it would be like this amazing. And we even like, you know, our mascot has sensory headphones. So our mascot will wear sometimes noise canceling headphones. And I think my heart melted is the day that I saw him holding a little girl's hand and they both had their headphones on. And I'm just like, that's exactly it. You want people to feel supported. You want people to feel like you�re with them.
Ryan: And it's been amazing to see the response of the organization from a commitment standpoint to let this carry through again, not just this one day that we raise money, but it's with the cheer clinics, the football clinics, the help kids club Halloween party to our stadium on game day experience. And I think one of the most exciting things we did this year as well was we brought in a vendor Popcorn for the People. Are you familiar with them?
Mary: What is it called?
Ryan: Popcorn for the people.
Mary: Popcorn for the People? No, I'm not familiar.
Ryan: So that was started by a family and they started a popcorn gourmet popcorn business. And it's all run by adults with autism. And they make the gourmet popcorn and they bag it. And we happen to come across them because they started selling popcorn at Rutgers during their football game. And so we were able to connect and we actually brought them in and made them a vendor for the stadium. And we have adults with autism then selling the popcorn in the stadium, raising money, obviously, for the organization. So there's been a lot of amazing things that have happened in short time.
Ryan: And I feel so lucky to be a part of it and kind of be standing side by side from these families and in a position, you know, again, my personal connection is there because these family members trusted me to carry out their vision. So I feel an obligation, not only them, but all of these families that I need to really make sure every day we do whatever we can to make their lives better.
Mary: Well, it sounds likean amazing... I knew very, very little about the Autism Foundation through the Eagles before we spoke. But I mean, it sounds really like you have and whoever else has been involved, I didn't know that Jeffrey Lowery had a personal connection to autism and the whole organization has really done a terrific job of connection and outreach and research.
Mary: I had no idea. So I'm sure that parents and professionals that are listening will be will be equally as impressed as to, you know, the possibilities that, you know, some one individual or one organization may not be able to replicate everything. But even if they can take a small piece of what you're saying and maybe try to do that in their local communities or with their organizations, professional teams and bring some ideas. So you had mentioned that there's like Saturday shows. Is that on YouTube or where can people find out more about all of the outreach and research that you are talking about?
Ryan: So I would first say the biggest thing would be to follow our social media. Our Facebook page and our Instagram are very active. There's content every day and there's links to all of our videos. You can watch that. You know, I explained earlier with the funding, we did an entire video on our scientific process. You can see how these scientists from all over the country are there getting this research and making sure that every dollar counts. And then, you know, you have these every Saturday sensory projects. They're all available. So I would start with our social media. And then Eagles Autism Foundation.
Mary: And what is the name for the social media?
Ryan: It's Eagles Autism Foundation for Facebook. And Eagles Autism for Instagram.
Mary: OK. And is there a Web site, too, or is everything?
Ryan: So the Web site is EaglesAutismFoundation.org.
Mary: So that is one great way that people can learn more. They can contact you or a member of your team if they have questions or ideas for how to expand or how to do things in their local area. So to conclude this show, it's been a real eye opener for me to hear all the fantastic stuff that's going on within the Eagles Foundation. So part of my podcast goals are for listeners, for both parents and professionals to be less stressed and lead happier lives. So I'm wondering if you have any self-care tips or stress reduction strategies that you could recommend for others.
Ryan: So I think the biggest thing that I would focus on is that, one, don't be isolated. You're not alone. That there is a community to support you and look to that community, because I think intuitively everyone wants to help and do good. But unless sometimes they just don't know and they don't recognize other people's needs. So just using kind of that tool of self, advocating as to what your needs are and letting people meet you where you need them and kind of growing together. I think that's the most important thing. That's the philosophy that I operate. I mean, again, autism is different for every family. So you can't go into it that you expect that the same approach is going to work and support that person appropriately.
Ryan: So I think if you can, you know, take the time to listen to where the family's coming from and find a way that you can connect where they are. I think that's when you see the most support and change of all. And again, I think knowing that while we're starting this initiative and coming out in front and saying, you know, Philadelphia Eagles have said that autism is our number one priority off the field. We don't want to be the only game in town. You know, we want to be a model for others to show that it's possible to bring the community together. It's possible to make positive connections with autism and to teach people about differences and acceptance and making sure that we think about our fans.
Ryan: There's a lot of fans with autism who know every stat and every number. And, you know, how do you make sure that they're comfortable in our stadium? And that's a big reason for the sensory room. Again, employment being a huge thing, making sure that when we look at vendors, we're thinking about that autism population. And is there a way to have not only organizations that we work with as vendors, but also within our own organization? So we did a whole initiative on our game day staff and have a number of our game staff on the spectrum. So our goal is to definitely be a huge resource to families and be a source of inspiration and also bring other people along with us.
Ryan: And I think that's the most important thing that I always say is I'm here. I will answer any question. I will help you get started because there's a lot of work to be done. And I think we're just scratching the surface. And if we can inspire another organization to do something for these families, I think that it makes the world a better place.
Mary: Great. So we will link some of your social media and your Web site within the show notes. This is episode number eighty-four. So MaryBarbera/eighty-four will get you to the show notes. Thank you so much, Ryan. Ryan Hammond. It's been a pleasure to meet you. I wish you all the best. And thanks for your time today.
Ryan: Thank you so much for having me.
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