Autism Staff Gives Back

As part of Giving Back Day, USF staff spent time helping paint a house for Habitat for Humanity.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Mar. 14, 2011) – Tee shirts, jeans and overalls took the place of business attire for several hours recently when the staff from the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida held their annual Giving Back Day.

They spent their time painting a Habitat for Humanity house and loved every minute of it – paint splatters and all.

“In previous years we’ve volunteered with Metropolitan Ministries, Ronald McDonald House and the SPCA and have found it very rewarding,” said USF CARD Executive Director Karen Berkman.  “Even though we help individuals, families, professionals, and others with a variety of services on a daily basis, it feels especially good to have time to see results right before your eyes.”

She and staff members Rachel Schelb, Ellie Weber, Shelton Gilyard, Jean Caldicott, Susan Richmond, Mary Reed, and Mindy Stevens arrived early on the bright chilly January morning ready for instructions. Sorting through equipment Habitat purchased with donations, they poured paint into trays, picked up paint brushes and rollers, climbed ladders and set to work beside Job Supervisor Don Schroeder and volunteer Kim French who lives nearby.

On weekdays, volunteers aren’t very plentiful, so Schroeder was very happy to see the crew from USF.

“The more volunteers, the faster the work goes,” said Schroeder, who volunteers half days before heading to work in his own construction business. “Weekends are usually the best because we get the most volunteers.” 

The group was particularly excited about the prospect of working on a house going to someone who uses their services – a woman who has two sons diagnosed with autism. 

“We’ve wanted to work with Habitat for a while,” said Schelb, CARD USF program assistant.  “When I looked into it further and later found out there would be an actual connection to one of our constituents, that made it all the more meaningful.  She’s someone who truly needs the space and safety this new home will offer her and her sons.”

Her house wasn’t ready for the CARD crew, but they painted another one around the corner that was in the final stages of construction in the new Washington Renaissance project in Lakeland.  The recipients of the homes are required to put in a minimum of 100 hours on their own homes and 250 hours on another Habitat house and are provided with an interest-free mortgage.  Local garden clubs donate their landscaping skills and elbow grease to give each house welcoming curb appeal. 

Going by how things look now, it’s hard to imagine that the area was once a dangerous, drug-infested eyesore.  The worst of the housing was torn down and Habitat spent three years acquiring the land from the Lakeland Housing Authority to build eight houses.  The organization was required to build homes that fit in with the community, hence the modest Craftsman style and pastel colors.  With the new additions, the community will have a more cohesive look accented by huge beautiful old growth oaks in the neighborhood.   

Invariably, wherever Berkman goes, once people find out she works with individuals with autism, the questions begin.  And she’s happy to share what she knows.

“These days, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know a family with a child or other family member on the autism spectrum,” she said. “They’re usually happy to find out there are services available that they can pass on to the people who need it.”

This project is not unique for USF. Students on the Tampa campus have a Habitat for Humanity chapter of their own and the Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement sends groups involved in Bulls Service Breaks to work with Habitat in other cities during spring break. 

And volunteering is a two-way street at USF. Students volunteer in the community, and volunteers from the community offer their services to USF.  Interested students should contact the Center for Leadership and Student Engagement or call (813) 974-7595; and others wishing to volunteer at USF should contact USF Human Resources at (813) 974-2970. 

For more information about USFCARD, visit or call (813) 974-2532 and to reach the student chapter of Habitat for Humanity, contact Eric Manukian at

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.