TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- She has four sons - three are autistic and one has a speech delay. She works tirelessly to help other families with autistic children through the non-profit organization she founded and directs. She oversees fundraisers and awareness campaigns. She does all this while refusing to take a salary.
Because of her efforts within the community, Helen Ezell, wife of Tech. Sgt. Joseph Ezell of the 601st Air and Space Operations Center, was named Citizen of the Year for the city of Lynn Haven, Fla.
"I didn't even know I had been nominated, so it was a complete shock," Mrs. Ezell said.
Her nomination was submitted to the city by family friend, Rebecca Dickerson, who also works with Mrs. Ezell.
"Helen began her journey into the world of autism approximately eight years ago," Ms. Dickerson wrote in her nomination letter. "This began a very long and, at times, very frustrating odyssey for Helen and her family. When the Ezells looked around, they realized they had no idea where to go or who to turn to for the help and support their family so desperately needed. It was in response to this that Helen decided to open the Autism Education Center."
Mrs. Ezell said she opened the center for special needs children because Bay County needed it. Moreover, her family needed it.
"I am driven by my sons' needs first and foremost. No one in the county could help them," she said. "No one had all the services they needed under one roof. I decided I could either sit at home and moan about it, or I could get up and do something about it."
Described as a 'one-stop autism shop' by some of the parents who have used it, the AEC in Lynn Haven offers medical, therapeutic, educational and instructional programs which were created to deal specifically with an autistic child's age and delay.
Mrs. Ezell, a former behavioral health nurse, took to working with special needs children rather easily.
"I work with approximately 30-50 special needs kids weekly," she said. "I am very comfortable with them. And while my job may not be easy, I love it."
The challenges of her job extend far beyond working with autistic children. The center has no major sponsors, which means operating on a shoestring budget from time to time.
"I've had to do therapy sessions in the dark with flashlights when we couldn't pay the center's electricity bill. The kids loved it though!" Mrs. Ezell said. "We also worked with no water when we couldn't pay that bill, so we just lugged in bottled water for the kids. We just do what we have to."
The entire staff works for no wages, choosing instead to return every bit of money to the AEC. A few years ago, when the center was still just a vision, a family loss gave Mrs. Ezell the money she needed to get going.
"The initial $5,000 I put down to start the AEC came from my grandmother's estate, and I think she would've been proud that I chose to use it that way," she said. "She might have kicked me for my next decision though - I went from a high-paying nursing job to receiving no paycheck whatsoever. But I've never been happier!"
Somehow throughout all of her pursuits, Mrs. Ezell found time to chronicle her experiences with autism in a book titled "Four Princes - A Journey." In the book, she details how her sons' multiple autism diagnoses nearly destroyed her, yet she found peace with it. Though she hasn't found a publisher for the book, she hopes to someday.
"I want to get this book out there so other families with special needs children can see what is possible if they roll their sleeves up and just get on with it!" she said, adding that she is currently working on a second book.
Mrs. Ezell doesn't think she's done anything extraordinary.
"I do what I think parents of special needs children must do - I work hard and look after my children," she said. "I never realized the AEC and all of my efforts would become such a big deal, but I am thankful for the experience. I have grown tremendously from doing this."
Her husband is thrilled with her recognition.
"I'm extremely proud of my wife and humbled at the same time," Sergeant Ezell said. "She thoroughly deserves this award more than any one person I've ever met in my lifetime, and the fact that she chose me to be part of her life humbles me daily."
During the award ceremony, which was held Jan. 25 in Lynn Haven, Mrs. Ezell was overcome with emotions as Mayor Walter T. Kelley spoke of her accomplishments and struggles.
"I've had the pleasure of watching Helen in action, and there is no one more dedicated to the cause of autism than she is," Mayor Kelley said. "She's that type of person who never has 'free time' because she is always focused on making the lives of autistic children in our community better. She is a shining example of what 'selflessness' really means."
Through it all, Mrs. Ezell summons up the energy each and every day to educate parents and caregivers on the struggles that children with autism face, and she also knows the realistic and exhausting toll such drive and determination can take on a person.
"The ceremony brought me to tears," she said. "It was very hard to hear about my life and my sons' struggles read out loud in public, but I am extremely grateful for this award. I know I couldn't have done all of this on my own."
She added, "I have beautiful children, an amazing husband, supportive friends and colleagues, and strong family ties," Mrs. Ezell said. "I thank all of them for helping me. I'd especially like to thank Beca Dickerson, Michelle Hall and Lindsay Carson who work on a daily basis at the center, and to William Keeley who runs the Monday night adult program. Without these amazing people, this wouldn't be possible."