Ethan Gerlick, 3, gives Bill and Virginia Leffen a thank you card as their daughter Beth Cole, Overland Park, Paula Baker, Freeman president elect, and Amanda Dillard, a parent of autistic children helped by the center who spoke at Tuesday's press conference, watch.

Holding back tears, Amanda Dillard explained how the instructors at the Ozark Center for Autism had helped her autistic daughters, Reagan and Savannah, progress in ways she never dreamed possible.

On Tuesday, she told Bill and Virginia Leffen, of Joplin, that their donation of $3 million to fund the rebuilding of the center means more to the parents of autistic children than just the construction of a building.

“This donation gives us hope,” she said. “I can’t say enough about that.”

After Dillard spoke, three children with autism entered the room.

“Look, look, look,” said Bill Leffen, as he pointed to the children. They presented the Leffens with a “thank you” card in appreciation of their gift. One of them gave a high-five to Leffen.

The center’s former location at 2411 S. Jackson Ave. was destroyed by the May 22 tornado. It will be reconstructed at 2808 S. Picher Ave. and will be named the Bill and Virginia Leffen Center for Autism.

“The impact of this gift can never be measured,” said Paula Baker, Freeman Health System president and chief executive officer-elect. “It is impossible to measure the impact of changing a child’s life.”

Noting that the Christmas season is a time of miracles, she said, “Your gift will profoundly affect families for generations to come.”

The donation will permit the Ozark Center for Autism to place all of its services in a single, state-of-the-art location, including its diagnostic center, preschool, and kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms.

The center also will feature mock rooms that replicate the home environment, a small theater, a kitchen for cooking classes and a multipurpose gymnasium.

Planning for the new center is under way, but a completion date has not been set.

Bill Leffen, one of the first babies born at the original Freeman Hospital, has a long association with Freeman Health System. In 1972, he served as chairman of the Freeman Hospital Fund Drive, the campaign to raise funds for the construction of what is now Freeman Hospital West at 1102 W. 32nd St.

Leffen is a former chairman of Commerce Bank of Joplin. He served 25 years on the board of trustees for Commerce Bank in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Virginia Leffen is a retired interior designer whose work has been featured in businesses in Joplin, and Columbus and Pittsburg in Kansas. The Leffens have six children, 15 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The Ozark Center for Autism, developed in consultation with the Cleveland Clinic Autism Consulting Group, provides intensive therapy, which is vital to unlocking parts of the brain that control functions such as language, emotion and social skills.

Since it opened in 2007, more than 300 students have received treatment at the center. In 2010, the center established a special education center that expanded its therapy services to students in kindergarten through the 12th grade.

In January, the center opened the area’s only autism diagnostic center. The center recommends local treatment opportunities to families once a diagnosis has been made.

Temporary location

THE CENTER, which resumed operations less than a week after the tornado, is operating in a temporary location at 3230 S. Wisconsin Ave. The news conference for announcing the gift was held there.

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