By Gregg Jones

Missourian Staff Writer

Union resident Drew Allmeroth wanted to give back this Christmas, and as part of an Eagle Scout project he collected and donated more than 300 toys to the Gateway Education and Therapy Center.

While that donation is a feat in itself, the intent of the donation is special to Drew.

“I wanted to do an Eagle project that was close to me,” he said. “I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and I was just like many of the kids who go to Gateway.”

It was through playing with toys that led Drew to begin talking.

“I didn’t start talking until I was 6 and it was because of toys — I wanted to give to other kids like me,” he said.

Drew, 13, is a Boy Scout with Troop 442, Union, and a student at Union Middle School. He collected the 370 toys at the YMCA; Mercy Hospital Washington; the Missouri Department of Transportation; and the First Christian Church of Washington.

Drew and other Scouts also held a toy drive outside of the Washington Wal-Mart.

“It made me feel so good the day I dropped off the toys,” he said. “The kids were so excited and they instantly started playing with the toys. There were several who reminded me of myself when I was young.”

According to Drew’s mother, Becky Allmeroth, a goal for the project was to raise awareness for Gateway — that a center like this is in the community for children with special needs.

“We were told he would never talk,” she said, “and to organize a toy drive of this magnitude is really incredible.”

Drew was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 6, but it was suspected earlier that he had it.

Asperger’s syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism characterized by difficulties with social interaction. Drew is sensitive to noise and can be overwhelmed easily with external sounds.

“The toy drive was worth it if it could help just one kid learn to talk,” he said. “I also wanted to use the toy drive to make people aware that we had a place like Gateway in Franklin County.

“They help a lot of kids function and catch up if they are delayed,” Drew added. “And it is nice to just have a place to hang out where we can be ourselves.”

Gateway Education and Therapy is a nonprofit organization that provides much-needed therapy for children with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and other conditions causing developmental delays.

According to Anne Barry, Gateway office manager, the toys are a great addition to the center to assist children.

“Sometimes they can connect more with objects than with people,” she said.

Gateway offers speech and language therapy, ABA (applied behavior analysis, which incorporates behavior, language, and in cases where it is needed, food therapy, as many children with challenges also have severe food aversion), social skills classes, activity classes for sensory-seeking children, and more.

The center is located at 1281 Church St., Union, and serves Union and surrounding Franklin County communities.

Without local therapies and classes, many families would have to drive 60 miles to St. Louis, or go without. The center also offers tuition assistance to families with financial difficulties.

In addition to offering therapy for kids with challenges, Gateway offers art and theater classes, which are open to kids of all abilities.