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By Erin Schwager

Shining a light on autism

Summerland student raises funds for local animal shelter


Courtney Soper | SAM

Donation • Zekiel Kaiser presents a check for $450 to Dianna Kohl, a Holt County Animal Shelter volunteer. The donation came from proceeds of a T-shirt fundraiser, for Autism Awareness Month, at Summerland School.

April was National Autism Awareness Month and National Adopt a Pet month.

Zekiel Kaiser, a preschooler at Summerland Public School, was successful bringing a light to both causes last April.

Kaiser was born on Jan. 5, 2016. When he was brought home, his mother, Courtney Soper, noticed he would eat and immediately vomit everything up.

"He couldn't keep anything down and progressively got worse. He wasn't gaining weight and in general, was 'cranky,'" said LuAnn Schindler, Zekiel's grandmother.

During the first few weeks, Soper took her son in for a routine checkup, where she expressed concerns with nurses that he was not eating. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, according to medical personnel.

Yet, the baby boy wasn't gaining weight.

Eventually, Dr. Troy Dawson, at Antelope Family Practice, in Neligh, ordered at-home care, one day a week.

Caregivers asked Soper if he was being fed correctly.

Simply put, "Yes, he was," Soper said.

After a month of issues and minimal weight gain, Soper took her son back to the clinic, where Dawson performed tests. He could not find anything wrong, so he suggested trying a timed feeding schedule, but nothing seemed to work. After two months of trying different feeding methods, Dawson agreed Kaiser needed to see a specialist and sent him to the Boys Town National Research Hospital, in Omaha.

Once the Omaha-based doctor at the hospital walked into the room and examined Zekiel, she told Soper, "I'm not sure he will be going home."

"Nothing like watching your baby be delivered a gut punch about her baby," Schindler said.

The doctor explained that Kaiser was behind, not only in weight and height, but she worried how his lack of nutrition affected him developmentally, more than likely, due to failure to thrive.

The Omaha doctors thought Kaiser’s case of failure to thrive was possibly caused by the formula he was being fed.

It made sense to Soper.

“My dad, Scott, was a dairy farmer and he said that Zekiel probably couldn’t have milk because of the way it was processed,” Soper said.

After a week’s stay at Boy’s Town Hospital, Kaiser was only allowed to have Neocate formula, which had to be purchased at a pharmacy.

The cost: approximately $70 per can.

The new formula, with additional baby cereal, helped him slowly gain weight.

While in the hospital, doctors also discovered a hole in Zekiel’s heart. He was transferred to Omaha’s Children’s Hospital for multiple tests. Specialists there told Soper they believed the hole would close in time.

Since then, he has had one checkup and his heart appears to be on the mend, although he may develop a heart murmur.

Kaiser is now a preschooler with high-functioning autism and he wanted to do a fundraiser on his own.

His mom decided they could make T-shirts to sell that say “Shine a light on autism.”

After receiving all the T-shirt orders, the Soper family made the shirts special by creating every shirt slightly different from the rest, “just like everyone with autism.”

“There may be two people with autism in the same room, but they are not going to act the same,” Soper said.

The fundraiser was successful, making $450 in profit. When Soper asked her son where he wanted to donate the money, he said he wanted to give it to DJ, the dog the family adopted from the Holt County Animal Shelter.

“I asked him if we could give it to the place where we got DJ from and he agreed.”

It made sense to Soper.

Kaiser has always loved animals. The family adopted two dogs from the Holt County Animal Shelter and every time they visit the shelter, he wants another one.

“From my point of view, all the animals in the animal shelters are usually misunderstood, the same way autistic people are. That is where we decided to donate the money to, because we thought, what better way to show these animals kindness, just as kids and adults who have autism are the kindest people in the world,” Soper said.

Courtney Soper | SAM

Autism awareness • Staff and students at Summerland School wear T-shirts made for a fundraiser, in April, during Autism Awareness Month. Zekiel Kaiser, a Summerland preschool student diagnosed with autism, along with his parents, Courtney and Richard Soper, of Page, designed the shirts and donated the profits to the Holt County Animal Shelter.

Diana Kohl, a volunteer at the Holt County Animal Shelter, in O’Neill, said that the donation from the fundraiser will help the shelter buy anything the dogs may need, including food, treats, bedding and laundry soap.

Some animal shelters receive funding, but the Holt County Animal Shelter is a non-profit organization; therefore, everything they do comes completely from monetary donations or donated items.

“We’re extremely grateful for any and all donations. We were really amazed that Courtney and Zekiel got so much to donate for us. It really meant a lot as many shelters get funding, but we do not,” Kohl said.

Soper said, “I just want to let people know that just because you are diagnosed with something or have something different, it is fine. You need to embrace the differences that make you, you.”


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