Deanna Levine is a passionate advocate of the Seaver Autism Center. Her husband, Hirschell Levine, is one of two trustees of the Beatrice and Samuel A. Seaver Foundation. Together, the Levine's envisioned a collaborative research environment dedicated to autism and helped create the Seaver Autism Center.
Where did the idea for a research center dedicated to autism originate?
We have a grandchild who is autistic. When he was 11 months old, we took him to a leading pediatric neurologist in New York City who said there was nothing wrong with him, that he was just lazy. His parents were relieved but I was not comfortable with the diagnosis. Within a few months it became obvious that something was wrong. They took him to another expert, and she diagnosed him with autism. That was when the brick fell. From there, it was a terribly distressing time. It was as if a person had died and a different child appeared in his place.
When one of my husband's clients died, he became co-trustee of her foundation. It was just by chance that this woman had wanted to support medical research in New York. And we were lucky that when we proposed the idea of an autism research center, Hirsch's co-trustee agreed, so there were no roadblocks and we've been able to continue to fund it.
How did you decide to partner with Mount Sinai?
At that time there weren't any other centers. There were individual projects across the country, but nothing under one group. Our concept of having all these different teams working side-by-side under one roof was a new approach. No one believed that this kind of center could be funded continuously.
Mount Sinai was the only New York medical center with open ears and open hearts. We've never regretted going to Mount Sinai. They have been warm, caring, and responsive.
What signs of progress have you seen since starting the Center?
Under Dr. Buxbaum, the research team has pinpointed several genes, particularly in speech. The theory that there are multiple genes - not just one - is an important accomplishment. As a result, we are now on the cusp of so many discoveries and we understand more about the complexity of the field.
Amazingly, people used to be unaware of what autism is. They wouldn't even recognize the term when we told people that we had an autistic grandson. If they did, it was because of the movie Rain Man. We can't believe the attention it gets in the media and news, and all the programs now dedicated to it. It's amazingly gratifying to see how much things have changed.
The increased awareness makes it easier to find the support that you need. And pediatrician know what to look for, so parents have an easier time getting the answers they need and so much time is saved which promotes early intervention.
What other ways have you found to support the Center?
We are not in a group of friends who can afford to give major gifts, so we ask that they give to the Seaver Autism Center in lieu of giving gifts to us to commemorate occasions. So checks come in increments ranging from $25 to a couple of a hundred of dollars. And it all helps.
Being a spokesperson is very important. You have to keep your eyes and ears open and also your mouth, in appropriate situations. People from all parts of our lives ask about the Center or about articles they've read and then they tell other people, which increases involvement. That can mean another $25 check and having another spokesperson. And then you never know who else might have a mighty pen.
How would you describe the rewards of philanthropy to others?
It's the most incredible feeling to see that you are really making a difference, that you are opening doors that have been locked, that you are opening scientific minds in areas of research that were underserved.