OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Autism is an increasingly common yet still very misunderstood condition. People who have it, especially children, often are lonely and have a hard time making friends and feeling like they belong. The FOX 4 Young Achiever of the Week has an answer for that: Art.
Smiles come easily to Hannah Bergwell's face, especially when she is doing art -- and doing it with the students in an after-school art club at Overland Trail Middle School. It's no ordinary art club. It's for kids with autism.
"We're just here to make art," says Hannah, "and work with the kids on having fun and getting to know their peers. And that way, they don't feel so alone."
With the help of supportive teachers and administrators, Hannah created the club and runs it and a similar one for students at Blue Valley North High School where Hannah's a junior. The Overland Trail club also includes several peers who are not autistic.
"It's been really great to see them open up emotionally and really express themselves," says Hannah.
"Every kid wants to feel like they have a group, that they belong," says Blue Valley North High special education teacher Kristi Herschberger, who instructs in the school's Navigators program which includes students with autism. "And Hannah has facilitated this so kids who struggle with it socially feel like they have friends. They see these peers in the hallways. These peers say, 'hi.' These kids light up."
Hannah became a strong advocate for children and teenagers with autism when she saw how her older brother, Josh, often was left out and misunderstood because he has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism.
"I just wanted to ensure that other kids had an opportunity if they wanted to be social that they could," says Hannah. Hannah didn't just come up with the idea for the art club and expect other people to run it and find the money for it. She did that part, too.
"It sounds a little weird but I paint shoes," says Hannah with a laugh. They are unique, 'Hannah Bergwell' originals. And they are hot items, at school and elsewhere. People bring shoes to Hannah and she paints them in her designs or to the buyer's specs -- and she sells them for $15.
"That's what I do," says Hannah. "And I've raised $400 doing that so I could fund the club, my own paintings and whatnot. So it's been great."
As Hannah pushed forward with the school art clubs, she had an even higher goal in mind. She and her protégés would do an art show -- and sell their works as a fundraiser for an organization called Autism Speaks. Hannah put on the Art for Autism show a few weeks ago. It raised $7500 in sales and donations.
"The art show was an amazing way to bring people together to demonstrate the amazing art we make here in the club, show the talents of the students and raise money for awareness and research," says Hannah. And Hannah keeps smiling -- and keeps speaking -- for kids with autism.
As if Hannah isn't accomplished enough with the art clubs and her own artwork -- and being a top scholar at Blue Valley North, she is an awesome soccer player for North and in the Kansas Premier Soccer League. Hannah is a standout defender-midfielder and her Kansas Rush team won the Kansas State Cup this past fall.
FOX 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Monday on FOX 4 News at 8 a.m., every Wednesday on FOX 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on FOX 4 News at 5 p.m.