Texas Tech University

Stacy Poteet Has Backed The Burkhart Center Since It Began Aiding Her Son

April 10, 2024

Stacy Poteet Has Backed The Burkhart Center Since It Began Aiding Her Son

This Texas Tech staff member found quality education and support from the center, so she aimed to raise awareness of its impact on people with autism spectrum disorder.

Jackson Poteet has an open smile that spreads from cheek to cheek, beaming positivity that also shines from his bright blue eyes.  

A young man of 26 years old, he has had love poured into him not only from his family, but the Lubbock community. 

“If we could all have Jackson's attitude about life, the world would definitely be a better place,” said his mother, Stacy Poteet. 

Jackson, who is taller than most at 6 feet, 2 inches and is known for his friendly nature and ability to belt out Harry Belafonte songs, is classified in the middle of the autism spectrum. Stacy and her husband Russell learned this when he was just 3 years old – an experience she said is hard to relive. 

They quickly had to come to terms with the fact that Jackson would never be 100% independent, but with work, he could still find his way in the world. 

“My husband and I just want him to live up to his full potential,” she said, “whatever that may be for him.” 

Poteet Family Picture
Stacy and Russell Poteet, with sons Tad and Jackson

Stacy, program director of Texas Tech University's Honors College, was a stay-at-home mom at that time. Once Jackson entered a preschool program for children with disabilities, she spent her spare time educating herself about how to best help her son. Her search for resources led her to the newly formed Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research in 2005. 

She started out as a volunteer who would interact with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experts at the Burkhart Center. They provided more tips to her than any academic book she could find.  

“It's different for every parent because no two people with autism are alike,” she explained. “So, I think listening to other parents and hearing if we were going through something similar and how they handled a difficult situation or a transition was definitely beneficial.”

One of those trials for Jackson was when he went to elementary school. Stacy was grateful she could lean on the guidance of parents who had older children with ASD she met through support groups and family events the Burkhart Center hosted. 

Before long, Stacy entered a transformative period herself.

“I thought ‘OK, I can help Jackson…how else can I help other people?” she remembered. “Sometimes just navigating the world of special education and individualized education programs (IEPs) is a foreign world when you've not been a part of that. So, I think we've definitely made that our goal: we want to be there for families who need that support.”

The Walk for Autism 

That's when Stacy developed a plan that she pitched to the cofounders and codirectors of the Burkart Center, one of whom was Robin Lock, now a special education professor with the College of Education. Lock was impressed by Stacy, who was on the frontline of a core group of families interested in growing the center with hopes it may benefit their children one day. 

“Some people have this ability to see what something can become and then invest themselves in ways to ensure that happens, and Stacy was one of those people,” Lock commended. “She's got this huge heart and when she puts her mind to it, she can make things happen like you wouldn't believe.”

Still – Lock was a little unsure about Stacy's proposal: a Walk for Autism hosted by the Burkhart Center each April on the Texas Tech campus. 

“We were looking at her going, ‘April…in Lubbock? Are you kidding?'” Lock said with a nervous laugh, hinting at the high winds and dust storms that plague West Texas in the spring. “It was very risky. The whole idea was.”

But the risks were far outweighed by the benefits: raising funds and awareness for the Burkhart Center's resources. With a deep breath and prayer, Lock said they moved forward with Stacy's idea. 

Hands for HopeStacy and Robin (left) wearing hats

Stacy was named director of the Burkhart Center Walk for Autism and hosted it at Coronado High School, not expecting a huge turnout. 

That was a misconception. 

“It was a huge success,” Lock recalled. “We knew from then on out we were going to do it forever.”

By the fourth annual walk in 2009, local news outlets reported there were more than 300 participants and a goal to raise $25,000. 

“Sometimes we had dust storms, sometimes we had cold weather and sometimes we had fantastic weather,” Lock said, “and it just grew and grew and grew.”

Jackson and TadAutism Walk - Hands for Hope

From Coronado High School to larger venues like Jones AT&T Stadium, sometimes in matching shirts or caps, Stacy viewed the annual gathering as a family reunion of sorts. Jackson got to mingle with people who touched his life at many different settings – from his preschool program and Lubbock Independent School District to therapy – and Stacy extended her gratitude to each of them. 

Even more special, Stacy watched Jackson get to experience what many children with ASD desire: friendship and community mixed with love and acceptance. In Jackson's words, that is what makes the walk “fun” (and, of course, the prizes he receives). 

Autism Walk - Trends & Friends Shirts
Autism Walk - Trends & Friends Shirts

Jackson and his childhood friends are now young adults, but time has only brought an increase in families participating in the walk. Stacy believes this directly correlates with the rising statistics of ASD diagnoses. In 2020, about 1 in 36 children was diagnosed with ASD by age 8, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's up from 1 in 44 children in 2018 and 1 in 150 children in 2000. 

Stacy is thankful the walk helps affirm these families are not alone through several tables that provide outreach materials.

“It is emotional for them to realize there's a place like the Burkhart Center that can offer support,” she recalled. “The needs are great here on the South Plains, and there are many more resources available than when we first started. It's wonderful to bring that to the community.”

Jackson at the Autism WalkAutism Walk 2023

All in all, the walk exceeded Stacy's expectations of what it would become, and she was thankful the Burkhart Center continued building the event. But while she may have hung up her shoes as director of the walk, her desire to keep learning about special education on the Texas Tech campus prevailed. 

She decided to pursue a Master of Education in special education and graduated from the program in 2012, which Lock considers an admirable feat not all parents could achieve. Stacy worked full time with Institutional Advancement until 2014 before joining the Honors College. 

She became a lead administrator and received the Texas Tech President's Award of Excellence in 2017 in part for her “kind, nurturing nature and her sincere efforts to help our students achieve academic success.” 

All the while, Stacy continued her involvement with the Burkhart Center, eager to see how it could make a difference in Jackson's future. This earned her another form of recognition from Jim Burkhart, who is namesake of the center along with his wife Jere Lynn. During an interview in which the Burkharts were awarded the Lauro F. Cavazos Award in fall 2019, Jim spotted Stacy in the crowd. 

“One person that has always been a very positive factor for the center sitting right here at this table is Stacy Poteet,” he said. “Stacy has a dog in the hunt, so to speak. She has an autistic son, but she also has compassion and a heart for trying to do the things that are being done at the center. She's been a very important part of it, so thank you Stacy.”

The Transition Academy 

The next year, in 2020, Jackson had completed Lubbock ISD's Vocational Transition Center program and was ready to join Stacy on the Texas Tech campus. He became an intern with the Burkhart Center's Transition Academy: a non-residential program that works to meet the needs of young adults 18 to 30 years of age who are diagnosed with ASD and aspire to be competitively employed.

“We were just thrilled,” Stacy said of the feat. “From the time I started there as a volunteer, to see him reach that point where he was going to be a student who would develop skills at the Burkhart Center brought it full circle.”

Jackson filled with Red Raider pride quickly. He would throw his Guns Up and preferred his program be referred to as “college” rather than “school.” 

Unfortunately, his experience began during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Jackson's classes went online via Zoom, and while he conveniently had all his meeting numbers memorized, he was overjoyed once his face-to-face interactions resumed on campus. 

The plus side was his partially virtual experience led to a slight extension of the 18-month program. Stacy watched with wonder as his communication skills gradually grew stronger.   

“It's one thing for me as a parent to think the Burkhart Center is a great place,” she said. “But to actually have my son there and see it through his eyes and know he wants to wake up and go there definitely solidified that. He never once didn't want to be there.”

Jackson not only got to participate in volunteer opportunities at the Lubbock Dream Center, but also completed several internships. Stacy found these particularly useful in identifying his prospective employment options.

“Knowing how he loves animals, I really thought Pets Plus would be the perfect internship for him,” Stacy said, “but it wasn't. He ended up not thriving there, and thanks to his job coaches, they could see that and work with him. That was definitely eye opening to me.”

Through planning meetings at the Burkhart Center, Jackson shared his input with Stacy and faculty members as they worked to determine his workplace potential. His next internship at the former Quiznos restaurant at the Burkhart Center proved he had food service skills that were unexpected to Stacy. In fact, that period of time was his favorite Transition Academy experience. 

Jackson at the fountain, holding his diploma

By the time Jackson graduated in 2022, donning a cap and gown, a framed diploma and his signature smile, he had newfound options for his future. Stacy has fond memories of the occasion, but also said it was emotional as Jackson said goodbye to his friends and teachers. 

“The Burkhart Center had been so much a part of our lives that it did feel like some sort of finality that his time there as a student was done, not that it was by any means,” Stacy said. “He can continue to participate in family fun days they have, the Walk for Autism as well as a Transition Academy alumni group where they're reuniting to practice social skills.”

Janice Magness with Jackson at graduationJackson with Burkharts at graduation
Jackson's Burkhart graduation with Janice Magness (left) and the Burkharts (right)

Not to mention shortly after his completion of the Transition Academy, Jackson was hired as a customer service representative by Nick's Treats. This nonprofit dessert truck is staffed by young individuals with developmental disabilities and offers seasonal employment Jackson looks forward to from mid-April to October. 

“One thing is certain, when Jackson is on the truck, customers leave with smiles on their faces because of their always-positive interactions with Jackson,” said a post from Nick's Treats Facebook page in August 2023. 

Jackson working for Nick's Treats
Jackson working for Nick's Treats

Lock still remembers the post-soccer-match ice cream she bought for her grandsons from Nick's Treats, seeing Jackson and several of his peers she recognized from long ago at the Burkhart Center in a much different setting. 

“I walked up and I was like, ‘There you guys are, all grown up, running this whole thing by yourself and it's looking so professional,'” Lock said with a note of pride. “It was a very satisfying and happy moment for me to see that.”

Along with Jackson's physical changes and personal development, Lock and Stacy agree the Burkhart Center has transformed nearly as much with additional programing, services and support systems they never dreamed of back in 2005. 

Stacy has even spread her outreach to other parts of the Texas Tech campus since then. She works with students who are higher functioning on the autism spectrum in the Honors College and oversees a mentoring program that includes outreach to students in structured learning classrooms at Lubbock ISD's Bayless Elementary

Most recently, she was asked to speak to graduate students with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center on an ASD parents panel. 

“Anytime I can share our story and help others, whether that be raising children with learning differences, or actually going into a classroom and speaking with future speech language pathologists or teachers, I find great joy in being able to hopefully impact others so they can use what I share in their careers or in parenting their children,” she said. “That's definitely something I'm honored to do.”

Jackson with his parents at his graduation
Jackson with his parents

That is Stacy's mission: to not only stay involved, but truly make a difference and spread how fulfilling it is to invest in Jackson and others with ASD. All it takes is advocacy to remove fear that surrounds the unknown. 

“I always say people have to know what autism is before they can be accepting,” she said. “My opportunity to educate the community on individuals with differences is something I wish more people had the opportunity to do, or volunteer to be around people like Jackson, his friends and others I've met through the Burkhart Center. 

“So many people who don't give those individuals the chance to get to know them and their families are missing out because they definitely have brought much joy to our lives.”

Support the Burkhart Center

This April, during World Autism Month, join Stacy in her mission to help those impacted by ASD by supporting the Burkhart Center and registering for the 2024 Walk for Autism

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