Ask Shannon Ellis what word comes to mind when thinking about how VIA changed her son Hayden’s life, and she’ll say: dignity.

“VIA gave him his dignity–he can go out and be in public and be a part of his community,” she said.

Hayden Ellis, 22, is a recent graduate from VIA Centers for Neurodevelopment–he was one of the Lynchburg school’s charter members in 2009.

“Hayden always had significant behavioral issues,” said Shannon. “We would get in the triple digits [of reported incidents] on a daily basis.”

Hayden was enrolled in public school from kindergarten through fourth grade in Bedford County, but his behavioral challenges became so intense that the family realized they needed other options.

“That’s where VIA came into the picture,” said Shannon.

The family of five–Hayden, mom Shannon, dad Jeff, and Hayden’s two siblings–moved to be closer to the services Hayden needed.

“You hear about life changing moments that you experience, and VIA was one of them,” Shannon said. “It was life changing for us, but also life changing for him.”

The Ellises learned about VIA’s evidence-based practices from staff members and implemented them at home. Hayden was also learning how to be a part of his community, volunteering at the local YMCA and working part-time at Upper Crust Pizza.

“We still deal with the challenges, but we have more good days than bad,” said Jeff, Hayden’s father.

With VIA’s help, the Ellis family began to enjoy outings as a family. Something as simple as dinner at Cracker Barrel was nearly impossible before.

“Parents with kids with special needs–it’s like planning to go to war,” said Shannon. “Where can we go where we won’t be too loud–it’s just a nightmare. Now [eating out] is something we do on the regular. Hayden may not eat what we eat, if it’s something he doesn’t like, but he’ll sit there and talk with us.

Shannon was also able to see her son experience friendship for the first time at VIA.

“Things have become more meaningful for Hayden, things like friendships,” she said. “When he was in public school I never heard him talk about friends. Socially the relationships Hayden has developed at VIA are significant, both with the staff and the students. He still talks about kids who graduated a few years ago. He was able to foster relationships–things we just never got to see before.”

What was the VIA difference for the Ellis family?

“They made such an investment in Hayden,” said Shannon. “You know, just the fact that they didn’t give up on him. We know he is a challenge. He’s got a great little personality, but he’s a challenge. And [that commitment] says a lot about the VIA faculty and staff. On our last day, I was crying, Damien was crying, the whole staff was crying. Those tears were just rolling. It’s so comforting to know people care about your kiddo.”

She added, “VIA really focuses on the successes of their students. Speaking as a parent of a child with special needs, the negative comes at you constantly. One thing we really appreciate is that VIA focuses on the things he can do and builds from there.”