Tom Aldrich is known in the Portage area for being an advocate for people with special needs. The business man and father of three has taken his experiences of raising a daughter with special needs and put them to work through being the Board Chairman for NorthShore Health, and even more so as a board member for Chasing Dreams.
Aldrich grew up in Northern Ohio after bouncing around because of his father’s role in the military. His faith has always been an integral part of his life and is the reason he became a businessman. When he moved to Portage almost thirty years ago, a friend from church told him about a sales company hiring, so he trusted God and his business career began.
“There were people who said, ‘you can’t do this and you can’t do that because you don’t have experience’,” said Aldrich. “So I went out and found ways to do it and succeeded.”
Then in 2007, Aldrich was contemplating looking for another job when things in the industry changed. On a day out with his wife to renew licenses, the BMV was closed so they headed to Suzie’s Cafe for lunch, where a man he hadn’t seen in a while set him up with the job he’d been looking for.
“I was in the wrong place at the right time,” said Aldrich. “The sermon at church that Sunday was about not being able to look yourself in the mirror because of your job and I was like, 'okay God, I hear ya.'”
Even though the head boss told him he was going to fail, Aldrich became rookie of the year. This new job allowed him to dedicate more time to the things he loved, like advocating for his eldest daughter, Mackenzie, who was diagnosed with autism in the late nineties.
“When my daughter Mackenzie was diagnosed with autism, people didn’t understand it,” said Aldrich. “We could be in a mall and she would have an episode and a security guard would come up to us and ask if we were hurting her.”
At 24 years old, Mackenzie had grown out of the high school program, which ended when she turned 22, so Aldrich was searching for a program that would fit not only his daughters needs, but her personality.
“For being a child with autism, she is very social, very emotional, and likes to be around people,” said Aldrich. “We ran into a friend who told us about Chasing Dreams and thought, ‘why didn’t we know about this sooner?’”
Chasing Dreams is an organization in Merrillville that provides programs for individuals with special needs that facilitates growth, learning, and independence. When they learned of Adlrich’s experience and resume, they wanted him to be on their board.
“Being a part of Chasing Dreams is also a lot of fun because a lot of the young adults bring such joy in talking and joking with them, and I do a lot of that,” said Aldrich. “They look at me as kind of the big goofy uncle in a sense.”
But the biggest thing about advocating for people with special needs is learning that they’re all different and have different abilities that maybe others don’t.
“The thing that was tough for me, was that I kept thinking was I had to be the one to help her,” said Aldrich. “But I realized after a few years, this is who she is and that gave me an understanding and an acceptance that she was teaching me so much more than I needed to teach her.”
You can find out more about Chasing Dreams at www.chasingdreams.org.