CALIPATRIA, Calif. (KYMA, KECY) - Having a child diagnosed with autism can be very overwhelming for a parent.
One Calipatria mother knows the feeling all too well, with all three of her children on the spectrum.
But instead of shying away from their differences, she's decided to tackle them head-on and has an entire community behind her.
Jacqueline Riddell is making a difference in her community; with her giant chef's hat and colorful soccer jerseys, she's able to give opportunities and experiences to children who would otherwise not have them.
"What I'm doing now wasn't the plan," said Riddell. "I started off as a paramedic and firefighter, that was my career goals, and my children's disabilities definitely played a role in having to shift gears and start focusing my full attention on their needs."
Jacqueline's organization, Best S.T.E.P. Forward, helps parents who have children with cognitive disabilities, like autism, to participate in youth-friendly programs.
She decided to start Best S.T.E.P. for her son Killian.
"My son phased out of sports because of his unique needs," said Riddell. "We decided to do a soccer team for children with special needs."
Best S.T.E.P. organizes youth athletics programs year-round, with indoor soccer played during the hot summer months.
"Now we have about 300 people utilizing our program throughout the year," said Riddell.
One parent said this program has had a tremendous impact on the social development of her child.
"I think it's awesome because a lot of these kids miss out on these opportunities, due to some of their disabilities," said Lillian Vargas. Her 6-year-old son Isaac participates in the Bets S.T.E.P. program. "So, it really gives them an opportunity to get together with people that are like them."
Jacqueline said organizations like Best S.T.E.P. often get overlooked when it comes to state funding for these programs.
One California state senator who recently visited Best S.T.E.P. is looking to change the perception of behavioral health needs.
"The state has a long way to go frankly in looking at all of the infrastructure we need to build around behavioral support services, we have a long way to go in that," said California State Senator Steve Padilla.
"Organizations like Best S.T.E.P. and others really fill in a lot of space and really bring a lot of services and support that otherwise would not be here."
Padilla said the passion and dedication of Jacqueline and her staff shows why programs like these are so vital.
"You can really see there's a lot of heart here, there's a lot of love here, and really thinking about the needs of the kids that participate in this," said Padilla. "I've been inspired by and impressed by it."
Children, like Jacqueline's son, Killian, know they can accomplish extraordinary things despite their differences.
"I never think in the negatives. I always think of the positives and that's what you guys should too," said Killian Riddell. "You can never let someone judge you for what you look like or what you like."
Jacqueline knows the work put in by her and her staff will leave a lasting impact on the lives of these children.
"I do feel like I have a purpose that I've been granted the opportunity to have the health and wellness and the ability to learn, grow and really reach out of Imperial County," said Riddell. "I think as a parent your goal is that your children just succeed any possible levels that you could've ever reached."