Hunter Duenas is six years old. This young boy is the inspiration behind what will be a multi-functioning center that services autistic individuals for the island of Guam.
Vincent and Tanya Duenas, a doctor and nurse, respectively, cofounders of the nonprofit HunterSpeaks, and also Hunter’s parents, beamed as they spoke of him.
“He can read at a second grade level, he can spell like anything,” Tanya said. Vincent chimed, “He has a photographic memory. He’s super bright.”
Tanya discovered that he fell on the autism spectrum after months of searching for answers. She noticed that he was different around 15 months and kept pushing to see specialists to diagnose him.
“When you hear that diagnosis, I don’t know, so many emotions go through you…as a mother, you’re like okay, now that we have this diagnosis, how do we get him help?” said Tanya.
That’s when the couple realized that services on Guam for autistic children are lacking. According to the Duenasas, the recommended amount of behavioral treatment for autism is 25 to 40 hours a week; such treatment is nonexistent on Guam.
“Instead of fighting the system, we needed to provide a solution. That’s how we came up with this nonprofit,” Vincent said.
“We just saw a big gap that needed to be filled. We believe that Hunter was given to us for this specific reason,” said Tanya.
To start, they worked with a task force organized by Governor Calvo and a team to help steer them in a certain direction. They also met and partnered with an attorney, who helped them probono.
Their non-profit, HunterSpeaks, began in 2016.
“We’ve been established a little over a year now.” Vincent said. “We have a whole board that helps out and a bunch of volunteers.”
The mission of the organization is to “improve the standard of care for autism treatment on Guam, so that children affected by the disorder may receive the appropriate intervention they need and rightfully deserve.”
Their overall vision is to “establish a comprehensive autism center that provides intensive behavioral intervention as well as support services.”
Two bills have been passed in their favor to secure an area for the center and mandate the provision of health care insurance coverage for autism spectrum disorders by insurers.
The Duenasas have fundraised for scholarships for three local teachers to become Board Certified Behavioral Analysts to teach and work at the center.
Ten individuals will start training in a 12-week program to become Registered Behavioral Technicians in January.
Part of the training requires clinical hours, which they can get through a temporary center that will open in January to service 15-20 autistic kids.
“When the autism center is done in a year or two, we’ll just have to transition and expand,” Tanya said.
“It’s a very complicated project. It’d be nice if this field already existed here and we could recruit people to the center, but we’re starting something from the ground up and so it’s been a challenge,” said Vincent.
When they have a fully functioning center, the Duenasas plan to provide training for parents and caregivers of autistic children to be able to help their kids at home and as the center grows, they would like to branch out to service kids with other disabilities that might benefit from the treatment and also provide job placement opportunities for adults with autism.
“We’re starting off small. But eventually, we’ll be able to handle the entire capacity of Guam. Guam has an estimated population of about 260 kids with Autism ages 3-21. The company that we work with in California estimates that we’re going to need at least 100 RBTs to service Guam,” Vincent said.
Fundraisers and generous stakeholders are their sources of income for the scholarship program.
Last April, they hosted a Blue Run 5K, which had over 1500 participants. All the money raised went towards the scholarships for trainees.
Now, they’re planning a Blue Gala for the stakeholders in April of next year.
“We have a lot of support from the community. It’s going to take time, but we want to do it right and we want to get it done the right way,” said Vincent.
Vincent and Tanya are both UOG alumni, receiving a Bachelor’s in Biology and Nursing in 2004 and 2007, respectively.