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Bitterroot first responders now equipped with autism sensory kits

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Posted at 9:20 AM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-17 20:42:18-05

CORVALLIS — A deadly fire sent shockwaves through the Corvallis community in July of this year.

Suspected to be arson, the fire left three people dead.

Neighbors on either side of the home were evacuated, watching the disaster unfold and for one family, the incident proved particularly challenging.

“My daughter and I woke up to the sound of first responders pounding on our building, yelling 'get out!' and immediately I could tell that there was a fire,” recalled Corvallis resident Jessica Fitzpatrick.

“Everything was bright orange and hot, and just total chaos, right off the bat, and I went into Sequoia’s room and woke her up, but she wasn’t awake and wasn't aware yet, and when I woke her up she just said ‘no’ and pulled the covers over her head.”

Fitzpatrick ran to the window and saw that it was her neighbor’s house on fire. She knew she only had a few moments to get her daughter to safety before their house could potentially catch flame.

“I got her up and I showed her the fire, and she was mesmerized. It was huge and she was just staring at it and I said ‘That's why we have to go, we're in danger'."

Fitzpatrick’s 16-year-old daughter Sequoia is on the autism spectrum, so the chaos of the fire, emergency vehicles, lights and noises overloaded her senses.

“She had noise-canceling headphones, but I didn't even think to put them on her, I was just so in a whole other space,” said Fitzpatrick.

The two made it out of the house safely, the fire next door, however, resulted in the death of three people.

It's an incident that would traumatize anyone, and especially someone with sensory overload, "out of the experience we saw a need,” explained Fitzpatrick.

Never again, would she let someone else in her community be caught in the same situation, so she came up with the idea of equipping emergency responders in the Bitterroot with autism sensory kits.

You could say the stars aligned because around the same time, the Ravalli Electric Co-op was looking for the first recipient of their new community outreach program, Power of Change.

Heartism, the autism center Fitzpatrick operates in Corvallis, was the perfect fit.

Power of Change, which works by co-op members rounding up their electric bill payments each month to the nearest dollar, raised $2,800 in funds during the month of November.

That money was awarded to Heartism to create and distribute the sensory kits to area first responders.

Corvallis Fire EMS department head and captain Amy May will be one of the recipients of those kits.

Of the 125 kits assembled, May said five or six will go to the hospital, 20-to-30 to law enforcement, some to area fire departments, and the rest to EMS crews.

The kits include noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses to dim overwhelming lights, tactile toys, and a handful of other calming items.

For emergency responders like May and many others, the kits will serve as a tool to soothe those individuals with sensory issues.

“Being able to give the tools to somebody in any situation, no matter what you come across, is wonderful,” said May.