Earlier this year, Duke Rousse of Destrehan received a phone call — and potentially tragic news.
Rousse’s 8-year-old son, Jett, had ridden his bike onto a street near their home and was struck by a car. His son, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, had ridden close to the street on a couple of occasions before, but that he or his wife Michelle had always caught him.
“It was one of the worst calls I’d received in my life,” Rousse said. “Thankfully, when I got there, it wasn’t what I’d pictured.”
Amazingly, Jett, who Rousse noted was hit by a car traveling 35 mph and thrown from his bike, escaped the collision with just a few bumps and bruises.
Rousse believes that may not have been a total coincidence. A night earlier, he and his son visited a family caring for a special needs child just like Jett and offered assistance.
“I felt like we blessed that family, then a day later God blessed ours,” Rousse said.
The assistance came as part of Jett’s Runway, a nonprofit organization Duke and Michelle Rousse began last year. It’s aim is to help families of autistic individuals by providing resources, financial aid and other forms of assistance. The organization holds regular fundraisers, the next one a golf tournament to be held at Chateau Estates in Kenner on Nov. 14.
Through caring for Jett, whose speech and motor skills are severely delayed, the Rousses met many other families of children affected by autism. They also brainstormed a way to help.
“We came to the realization that these families didn’t have many resources to turn to for help,” Duke said. “In some cases, we see families with special needs children where the mom and dad are in denial. We try and bring families together and not apart. A way to do that is through increasing awareness. We try and do whatever we can.”
While educating others about the developmental disorder is a staple of Jett’s Runway, another major goal is to help families who are struggling to cover a child’s specific financial needs.
The family notes on the organization’s website Jettsrunway.org that many autistic individuals are in need of therapy that can be costly, averaging as much as $6,125 per year in out-of-pocket expenses and sometimes being placed as high as $30,000 a year. Without health insurance coverage, those numbers are even greater.
The organization tries to provide a monetary lift in that area when possible, opening up avenues for specialized attention, like music therapy.
Other times, Jett’s Runway might provide some assistance to help a single parent get back on their feet after losing a job. Other times, it could be guiding a parent to a babysitter who is qualified to care for a child with special needs.
“We just want to be a voice and resource,” Michelle said. Michelle said she and her husband are greatly inspired by their child, who was born a fighter.
Rousse was born prematurely, suffering seizures and in need of a ventilator to survive his early days. Doctors could not promise Duke and Michelle that their son would make it.
“We prayed so much and asked, ‘please, just let our son live,’” Michelle said.
The oldest of three children, Jett battled through and today he stands as his parents’ inspiration for helping others who have traveled a similar path in life.
One point the Rousses emphasize is that having a special needs child doesn’t close off the ability to do the same activities other families enjoy together.
“We try to keep our life as typical as possible,” Michelle said. “We try to expose them to real life and we don’t sugar coat. We do everything other families do. Even though there’s a verbal barrier, he’s able to play with all the neighborhood kids.”
Added Duke, “Just because your child has autism doesn’t mean you can’t go to dinner or to a movie. (The child) is just wired differently.”
Jett’s Runway held its first volleyball tournament fundraiser in June. The event brought out live entertainment, like musical acts Rockin Dopsie and D.J. Jubilee.
“We want to do four or five events a year,” Duke said. “We hope to spread awareness, not just locally, but throughout Louisiana.”