Leslie Weed is a longtime Ponte Vedra Beach resident and the co-founder of HEAL (Helping Enrich Autistic Lives), a Ponte Vedra-based nonprofit that raises awareness of autism and provides grants to organizations, camps, programs and schools which serve those with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Northeast Florida.
Can you briefly tell us about your background?
I am a Florida native, born and raised in Vero Beach. I met my husband Bobby, a golf course architect, on a blind golf date set up by mutual friends at Amelia Island Plantation. We married a year later. At that time, Bobby worked for the PGA TOUR and we began our life together in Ponte Vedra Beach. In 1988, I started a business in Ponte Vedra — Sawgrass Village and Amelia Island, “Suits Me Fine” swimwear and resort-wear shops — which I operated for 10 years. I taught Sunday School for 13 years at Christ Episcopal Church. Bobby and I raised our three daughters Haley (27), Carlisle (26) and Lanier (21) in the heart of Old Ponte Vedra.
What inspired you to start the HEAL Foundation?
My daughter Lanier is my inspiration for starting HEAL - Helping Enrich Autistic Lives. Lanier is nonverbal/can’t speak and is profoundly affected by her autism. When Lanier was 18 months, she regressed into autism, losing language and motor skills, she stopped walking and talking. It was a very traumatic, frightening and challenging time for our entire family. Autism was rare in 2000, and many doctors, therapists and specialists were trying to figure out how to help us. I traveled the country extensively attending seminars and meeting specialists in order to help my daughter. In the summertime, my daughters attended camps and had lists of activities to choose from, but there was nothing in our area for children with Autism. In 2004, I decided to fill that void and start a foundation that would provide educational and fun activities for children, teens and adults with autism living in our community. HEAL has an outstanding Board of Directors and we recently started a Jr Board of young professionals TEAM HEAL – Together Everyone Achieves More, they volunteer and raise funds for our programs. We are grateful for our generous community, whose involvement helps HEAL assist those living with autism.
What is the focus of the HEAL Foundation?
Today, 1 in 59 children under the age of 21 are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders – four out of five are boys, we have an epidemic on our hands, the demand is great and there are very few resources for families. The focus of the HEAL Foundation is exactly what our acronym stands for – Helping Enrich Autistic Lives. Our mission is inspiring, educating and funding services for those affected by autism in our community. Our vision is to make our community the best place to live for those affected by autism. Since its inception, HEAL has granted $2.5 million, serving Baker, Duval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties. HEAL has donated 400 ($175,000) iPads to schools which has been a revolutionary technological teaching tool for those who cannot speak, giving them a “voice.” We also have provided funding for Autism Service Dogs, summer camps, sports leagues, music programs, art programs at MOCA and Cummer museums, golf camps at TPC, surf camps, support groups, weekend and afterschool specialized programs.
We understand Surf camp is coming up. Can you tell us about that?
Thirteen years ago, Carol Lombardo, along with Kim and Don Sears, approached me about starting a surf camp for those with autism. HEAL partners with the Ponte Vedra Beach Rotary on funding the camp. Since 2007, 350 kids have participated in our surf camp. The camp is held in Neptune Beach, we have 30 participants ranging in ages from 8-28, along with 100 volunteers, including lifeguards from Jax Beach and Neptune Beach. One participant, Max, is 22, blind and has autism. He has enjoyed our camp for the past 11 years. Max and surfer Joe Matacia ride the waves in on his paddle board. We live in such a giving, caring community and greatly appreciate so many taking two days off, shedding their business suits and donating their time to volunteer. The participants enjoy two days of surfing, paddle boarding, boogie boarding, ocean kayaks and sailing.
What does the future of the organization look like?
We are proud to announce HEAL’s bold new initiative to build five all-abilities parks across Northeast Florida. HEAL will lead the effort in funding and creating playscapes in our community where families meet and mix; those of all abilities and ages can explore, socialize and play together. We are targeting local corporations, businesses civic clubs, churches and schools to join in our efforts making this endeavor a whole community collaboration. HEAL will also be gifting 300 trikes/adaptive bikes to local schools K-12. Wheelin’ & HEALin’ – PE coaches will teach students how to ride, which provides the students physical therapy, exercise and coordination, while experiencing the independence and the joy we all feel while riding a bike. HEAL will continue to fund iHEAL - iPads Helping Enrich Autistic Lives to schools and give grants to schools, camps and programs. A Documentary called “UNLOCKED” is currently being filmed featuring my daughter Lanier and follows the lives of five teens living in Ponte Vedra who are nonverbal and communicating for the first time via iPad. The documentary is due out in 2020. The trailer to “UNLOCKED” can be found at www.Healautismnow.org
What do you enjoy most about living in Ponte Vedra?
I love our beaches, golf courses, the casual and active lifestyle. My daughters were raised here and I love that my church, Christ Episcopal Church, is within walking distance. My husband Bobby travels all over the world designing golf courses, working in the most stunning settings, throughout all his travels, and he says Ponte Vedra Beach is the BEST, a real slice of heaven. I agree.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love starting my day at 6 a.m. practicing yoga at Big Fish Yoga. I love the outdoors. I enjoy walking the beach and photographing the sunrise. I travel every month to our farm situated in the North Carolina mountains. [It’s] my time to exhale, read, relax, reboot and create more ideas to raise funds so we may continue to enrich the lives of those affected by autism.
Edited by Pars Moulden