Not many people can manage to keep a positive perspective through overwhelming odds and use hardships in life as an opportunity to change their lives for the better, but Keisha Allsop-Harsey ’11 fits the bill.
Born in 1976 in the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, she has been living in the United States since 1988 and graduated from St. Joseph’s Brooklyn Campus.
“I chose St. Joseph’s because it was very homey to me. It gave me what I needed: small classes, professors I loved and a degree I really wanted,” Keisha said.
She is married to Basha Abuoumam Harsey, with whom she has four children — Rickey, Zamaan, Ketura and Ibrahim — and two stepchildren, Iman and Sultan. Although the couple lived together in New York for a period of time, they decided it would be best to raise their children in Ghana, where Basha was born.
“We wanted the children to experience the culture and general respect for mankind, plus the more disciplined school system would challenge them more academically,” Keisha explained. “My stepchildren also live there; we wanted everyone to grow up together.”
She had no idea that her son Ibrahim would change the trajectory of her career path. Noticing developmental delays with milestones, such as sitting up or babbling, his doctor recommended that he be evaluated. Ibrahim was about 2 years old, and Keisha was close to her graduation from SJC, when her son was diagnosed with autism.
“His diagnosis hit me very hard, and truthfully, I was in denial and felt like it was my fault — that I did something wrong,” she said.
Instead of returning to Africa with her husband and family, Keisha made the difficult decision to remain in America, which she believed was the best option for Ibrahim.
“He is nonverbal with a lot of sensory issues, and there are not a lot of services in Ghana,” Keisha said. “You have to pay out of pocket for them.”
Despite going through the stages of denial after Ibrahim’s diagnosis, Keisha persevered and found the inner strength to help others going through the same situation. Her ability to recognize the emotional toll paid by parents of autistic children began to open new doors for her.
“I easily became confused and overwhelmed, and wanted to make the process less daunting for others,” she said. “Most parents, including myself, find it hard to accept the diagnosis, but I began to recognize the signs in so many children and thought that more awareness was needed.”
Keisha began hosting workshops and presentations anywhere she could speak — police stations, health fairs, family gatherings, clubs, churches, etc. Her workshops are centered on parents knowing the signs and symptoms of children that can potentially be diagnosed with autism.
“My initial workshop was done with a representative from Autism Speaks,” she said. “I learned along the way and did extensive research concerning what we should look for and what parents want to know.” Autism Speaks is an advocacy organization that sponsors autism research and conducts awareness and outreach activities aimed at families, governments and the public.
With a Master of Public Administration and a nonprofit organization leadership certificate, Keisha founded United Communities Autism Network (U-CAN) with help from the Brooklyn Legal Aid Society. U-CAN is incorporated, and Keisha is working to achieve 501(c)(3) status, which allows for federal tax exemption of nonprofit organizations.
She also began providing free workshops and presentations on the signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders in underserved communities for parents, caregivers and many others. Keisha created the websitewww.unitedcan.org which helps people find services near their area.
“This is truly my calling, as I believe in bringing relief to one parent and help to one child,” she said.
In January 2013 she began pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Health, and soon after joined United Cerebral Palsy of New York as its director of residential services.
To better accommodate her son’s needs, Keisha changed positions in December and began working as a family coordinator for the Brooklyn Early Childhood Direction Center. Her job again entails helping families that suspect a loved one may have a developmental disability, linking them to available services and guiding them through the process.
“Juggling a full-time job, my nonprofit and parenting an autistic child is not easy,” she said. “I make it work the best I can. Some days are better than others, and I breathe a lot.”
Ibrahim is now 5 ½ years old and making great progress every day. Although he is still nonverbal, his understanding is coming along well. Keisha hopes to complete her Ph.D. program in 2016, and to be reunited with her family soon.