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It was December 3rd, 2014, Molly Korte had just given birth to her and husband Brian’s third child. A beautiful baby boy that they named Jacob. They couldn’t be happier, Brian’s new business, Brickworkz Lego Mosiac’s was taking off and their girls were excelling in and out of school. Life was good. As their son Jacob grew however, Molly began to notice behavioral differences between Jacob and their two girls. He did things at his own pace, at first they would joke about it, referring to Jacob as their “Jimmy Buffett baby” because he took his time with everything. He sat on the ground preoccupied by doors that he would open and close all day long. He also interacted with other children differently. The girls loved their play dates, there was always a lot of interaction between their daughters and the other children. Jacob on the other hand would sit in a room full of kids grinding his teeth, not showing an interest in playing with any of the other children. Molly and her husband Brian were worried about his isolation and anxiety at these play dates but thought that it was “a boy thing.”
As time went on and the behavior continued they began to worry. They went to the doctor for a regular 12-month checkup and asked about Jacob’s behavior, they were told that Jacob was “developmentally delayed.” In the spring of 2016 they went back to the doctor for a skin rash he was suffering from. The doctor asked Molly to come into her office. Her heart sank, she knew she would not like what was coming. The pediatrician referred her to a specialist because she “had every reason to believe he is on the spectrum.” Jacob was officially diagnosed with autism on June 30, 2016. Molly will always remember that day. It was a day that changed her life in profound and unexpected ways. The diagnosis was the catalyst that started a movement.
Aftermath of the diagnosis.
The diagnosis at first was devastating. Her thoughts raced and emotions flared. In the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis Molly, like many parents of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, felt isolated and scared. Her emotions raced between sadness, fear, anxiety and confusion. The first few weeks and months were overwhelming.
These emotions are not unique to Molly, Brian and Jacob. Parents of autistic children worldwide are forced to deal with people questioning their parenting skills. They have to listen to ignorant people say things like “he/she looks so normal,” or “my niece behaved that way and my sister put him on a vegan diet…problem solved, have you tried that?” When an autistic child is having a meltdown their parents have to deal with the dirty looks and judgement thrust upon them by people who just don’t have a clue. Autism is so misunderstood.
This total lack of understanding is a source of frustration and anger for many parents of autistic children. Some parents don’t want their kids playing with autistic children for fear of them “catching autism” for example. While realizing that this type of ignorance existed Molly found herself wanting to shout to the world “WHY, why in the 21st century, is there still this stigma and fear of autism? How can other parents possibly think their kid can catch autism from Jacob?!?” She knew that something had to change. She knew that her and Jacob needed to be heard and that awareness had to be created. Deep down she knew that she had to not only be a part of that, but to be a leader.
Clarity, acceptance, action.
Molly was in search of something, anything really, that would put her mind at ease and give her direction. She sought out answers and a clear path to follow. Her search for answers led her to a conference in Richmond where she heard a talk about a pig, a cow, and a chicken that constantly squabbled and teased each other because they were different. Eventually they all learned to get along because despite all their differences, they were ALL animals and ALL had their special gifts. Sometimes clarity comes from the strangest of places and wisdom is gained from the most difficult of situations.
Molly realized that she had no reason to feel different, sad, nervous or confused. She needed to accept her new reality. Her son was the same child he had always been. He hadn’t changed since the diagnosis. This didn’t mean a life of despair. She realized that “Jacob was still just like his friends. That he just had a different way of doing things and those differences should be celebrated.”
She knew at that moment that “there has to be a way to show the world that these little beings are just like everyone else. Like the animals, people need to focus on our similarities and to celebrate our own different gifts.” It was at this moment that she started turning that vision into action.
The beginnings of a movement.
That day, with the support of her husband Brian, she began laying the ground work for Project: Just Like You. It became her passion, her cause. Like any entrepreneurial endeavor it took courage to put herself out there and required the drive to see things through to the end. Project: Just Like You (PJLY) started out as a simple Facebook page highlighting kids with special needs in order to show the world that they are just like everyone else. Like all children, those featured enjoy swimming, sports and going to the park. They have the “same interests, play the same games, and watch the same shows. The more we recognize our similarities, the more society benefits as a whole.” The children have so much more in common with their peers than they do differences.
Yet people focus on the differences. Many of these children and their parents feel as though they have been ostracized from society. The children are left behind in school, stigmatized, and bullied. They experience prejudice daily and it’s not right. “Children with special needs have so much in common with other children, why can’t we focus on that?” Molly says. “Why can’t we get past the stigmatism, the bullying, and the prejudice? We all have common interests, we’re all people here.” That’s what Molly’s Project sets out to do, push people beyond the labels and create a culture of acceptance and inclusivity.
Making a difference.
Molly wants to show that “we’re all people with dignity and respect” and says that “this is one small way of making a difference.” She is being modest. After being featured on several local media outlets in Virginia and nationally it’s hard to call this “small.” In fact, PJLY even recently featured Sesame Street’s Julia, a “brave, curious, and silly” young girl diagnosed with autism. This is big, and growing. That is due in large part to the people she features. The stories they share are an inspiration and illustrate the good in society while offering hope to those still in the shadows. PJLY has become a community of strangers brought together by a cause. “We want to create change in a positive way in our world.” The group on Facebook is lively and engaged, actively sharing each other’s stories and discussing the issues facing their children.
Molly gets daily affirmations that what she is doing is helping. They come from the parents that have been seeking help in educating other parents about the realities of autism and special needs. They come from the children who have for so long needed to be heard but didn’t have a voice. PJLY has provided them with a virtual megaphone to project their voice and educate people. The megaphone has become the symbol for Project: Just Like You. Molly chose this because it is “a tool used by those feeling ignored, left behind, or marginalized by society. It gives a voice to those who need to be heard, those who refuse to be left behind and ignored.” That is what Project: Just Like You has become for families and children not only with autism but special needs in general. Molly is making a difference.
Just the beginning.
A lot has happened since Jacob came into the world 2 and a half years ago. There have been a lot of highs and lows, a lot of change. One thing that can be said however is that like that day in December, 2014 life is good. Molly’s three children are thriving. Since his diagnosis Jacob has been continuing to make progress and is doing great. Her and Brian’s marriage has never been stronger and PJLY is “Changing the world. One story at a time.” What started out as a Facebook page dedicated to featuring children with special needs and highlighting our similarities while celebrating our differences has grown into a movement. PJLY recently achieved tax exempt status as a non-profit and the community continues to grow in both numbers and influence.
Molly “wants this world to be a better place and Jacob really brought that home.” She says, “I hope and pray this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” I can tell you that this is what she is meant to do. Activism is in her heart. She’s always had a sensitivity towards the underdog. She roots for those who have been overlooked and marginalized, it’s part of her being. For Project: Just Like You this is just the beginning.