Lynn Haven-- The Center for Disease Control estimates one in every 110 American children is diagnosed with autism. More than 450 autistic children live in Bay County.
Helen Ezell is mother to 4 special needs children, 3 of them autistic. Ezell's work with other local families helped earn her the honor of Lynn Haven's Citizen of the Year.
The Autism Education Center sits quietly off Highway 390 in Lynn Haven. Inside, Helen Ezell works tirelessly with as many as 50 students a week, some who rarely talk.
"It's worth it every day. When we have a new word from a child who's never spoken, there's nothing that can beat that,” said Ezell.
Ezell founded the non-profit center for special needs children two years ago. She gave up her nursing job, her salary and a lot of her time, to provide free therapeutic and educational programs for the students.
"We've had sessions where we've had no electricity, no water. We've done sessions with flashlights. We've done what we've had to. None of us take a wage," said Ezell.
Carrie Cross' son, 2-year-old Aidan and daughter, 5-year-old Abby come to the center everyday for therapeutic listening. Cross says Ezell and the center have been a blessing.
“Words can't say. They gave him back to me. When we first brought him here, he was impossible to engage," said Cross of her son, Aidan.
Ezell's co-workers feel the same way, nominating her as Lynn Haven's Citizen of the Year.
"I felt really humbled by the experience and I was so tearful because I don't think I’ve done anything different. I just do what I can," said Ezell.
Being Helen Ezell is no 9-5 job. After spending mornings and afternoons at the education center, she comes home to her own four special needs children.
"I have three sons diagnosed with autism and the youngest is speech impaired," said Ezell.
But Ezell considers herself lucky.
"I live on a different existence to most people. I don't have boring days," said Ezell.
Even when the going gets tough, she says the children she works with every day and her own boys keep her going.
"When I fall down, they pick me back up. Without them, I couldn't do it," said Ezell.
Ezell also helps with cancer awareness campaigns, fundraisers, community events, Down syndrome events, MS events and many more. Ezell shares the honor of Lynn Haven Citizen of the year with Wendy Locke, coach of the Raider’s cheerleading team.