Keith and Sue Sunderman have been Vista School parents for nine years. Their daughter, Natalie, is now 17 years old. The couple’s other daughter, Hayley, is a junior marketing major at James Madison University. Recently, the Sundermans helped Vista to prepare its first homes for adults with autism. A senior project manager at Penn State Hershey, Keith oversees the design and building of large capital projects for Penn State University. He has a degree in civil engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.
How did you become involved with Vista?
“We moved here from State College when Penn State offered me a position as the project manager for the new Cancer Institute on the Hershey campus. Natalie was 8 or 9 years old. We thought we had the ideal situation in State College. Then we got to Vista. The approach at Vista is data-driven and results-oriented. The staff is quick to adapt and come up with a new plan in response to any new changes.”
What inspired you to become a volunteer?
“We saw the volunteer opportunity in the newsletter. It’s a joint thing I can do with my wife. She does drywall, painting, whatever it takes. Now that Natalie is 17 and we have a greater level of stability, we hope to do more of this. A lot of parents want to give back. Nice to be able to give back in what, frankly, I enjoy doing. In my own experience, in my home, I’ve been quite adept at dry-wall repairs,” as well as the installation of protective yet attractive safety features.
What are the benefits of volunteering?
“Volunteering deepens our connection to the school and has a lot of peripheral benefits. It brings the Vista community together. People don’t have a chance to rub elbows much. Working on the homes has allowed Sue and me to envision what life after 21 might look like. It’s helped us push the vision for what our family life might be like. We’re having that discussion now. It’s a much more realistic option now.”
How would you describe yourself?
“I like to help people define their vision and put a plan together to get there. To take something from an ideal to reality – that’s fun for me. I like to take my work very seriously, but not take myself seriously. I have high expectations, but I do it with a sense of fun and laughter, as long as we accomplish what we set out to do.”
What might someone be surprised to learn about you?
“For a novice hack golfer, I had a hole in one last year, and my wife and friends are tired of hearing about it!”
What do you wish other people knew about autism?
“The term ‘spectrum’ is important. “The term ‘autistic’ is a singular definition. The reality is really, really broad. With the right education and development, everyone can become more capable than they are now, regardless of where they started on that spectrum.”
What do you tell others about Vista?
“Vista is, unfortunately, a well-kept secret. Unless you have a child on the spectrum, people don’t know about it. It’s incredibly impactful, has seen tremendous growth with a huge vision for the future. I’d like them to know this gem is in their own backyard.”
In your opinion, what is the most important work Vista does?
“It fills a tremendous need in society to serve this spectrum autistic population, and does it so incredibly well that it provides a great amount of hope for families and friends of those on the spectrum.”
What life lessons have you learn from your experience as the parent of a child on the spectrum?
“Most of us let the world define what it means to be happy. With an autistic child in the family, we have learned to use a different yardstick. Natalie has good life lessons for us. She helps us keep our priorities in order and not overreact to small things when life throws us a curve ball. When Natalie’s happy, we’re happy. A lot of effort revolves around keeping everybody happy and stable.”
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