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Education takes flight for teen with autism

For a child with autism, stepping into a new environment can be terrifying. For one Spokane Valley girl, West Valley’s Outdoor Learning Center has helped her step out of her shell and share what she has learned there with others.

Ava McLeod started volunteering at the West Valley Outdoor Learning Center last summer.

The 14-year-old first learned about the center when she attended a HOOT – Hawk and Owl Outreach Talk at the Spokane County Library with her mother.

Jami Ostby Marsh, the center director, said Ava kept raising her hand and asking questions. She and her mother even came back to the center to help staff unload the collection of birds of prey that live at the center.

Marsh said she recognized Ava’s curiosity about the center’s animals and decided to find a way for Ava to volunteer.

Ava, who was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism when she was 2, is home-schooled by her mother, Jaime McLeod, through the Columbia Virtual Academy out of the Valley (Wash.) School District. McLeod said her daughter has always loved animals, which leads her to science.

At first, the center was pretty scary for Ava. The entrance features native animals that have been preserved and mounted. The second room contains snakes, tortoises, lizards, cockroaches and some of the birds.

Marsh has asked Ava to help socialize the birds.

“I read picture books to the birds,” Ava said. She spends about 10 minutes with each bird in the mews, the area the birds are housed in, reading to them, which helps ready the birds for their trips in the HOOT show.

Marsh also encouraged Ava to keep a journal about what she sees when she’s with the birds. Ava notices when one of the birds hasn’t been grooming herself well or if one of them is feeling chatty.

“She spends a lot of time with those birds,” Marsh said. “She really pays attention to them.”

Marsh said Ava’s field journals include drawings of each bird.

“Her drawings are amazing,” Marsh said.

Ava also knows and can perform several bird calls. Last week, Ava held one of the birds for the first time. When asked if she would like to hold him again, she said, “If Stan won’t mind.”

Stan is a Harris’ hawk with an injured right wing. The hawk was raised by a falconer, and the center staff says he’s so friendly he’s like a house pet.

It took Ava awhile to build up the courage to hold Stan, but by Friday of last week, she was willing to hold Willie, a one-eyed barn owl.

The Outdoor Learning Center receives half of its funding from the West Valley School District. The other half is made up from grants from the Spokane Joint Aquifer Board, the Big Horn Foundation, the Bureau of Land Management and private donors.

The center serves students from all over Spokane County. Marsh said typically, 10,000 students a year visit.

A staff of four – Marsh, an Americorps volunteer and two para-professionals – keep the center running.

There are eight birds of prey at the center – Stan; Willie; Kiwi, a red-tailed hawk; Pants, a rough-legged hawk; Tilt, a Western screech owl; Sadie, a kestral; and Alberta and Hanovi, great horned owls.

There are also turtles, tortoises, snakes and other animals.

When Ava isn’t busy volunteering at the center, she spends time with her own animals at home. McLeod said they have a bird, some fish, a dog, some shrimp and a tank of plankton. Ava also rides horses.

Ava’s family recently visited Shelton, Wash., and spent time calling for a great horned owl. The owls called back.

Now that she’s home, she is spending time with the birds at the center, including Stan, who she held again on Friday.

“It was cool,” she said. “I’m glad he was in a good mood.”

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