Dad Next Door: Chad Kleis / Founder of the Nonprofit Hunterís Autism Specials
Last year, Chad Kleis made a plea on Facebook that, in his words, “caught fire.” His request was simple: that friends send his son a birthday card.
“I feel like I have to be Hunter’s voice,” the McKinney dad says of his 10-year-old son, who was diagnosed with autism at 2 1/2 years old. “I wanted to do something special for him. He doesn’t get invited to birthday parties and nobody comes to his birthdays. I don’t understand where this lack of compassion or understanding comes from, but as a father, that’s probably what I’ve struggled with most.”
Something about the dad’s simple request struck a chord. The post was shared more than 10,000 times and made national news. In the months following, Hunter received thousands of cards and gifts from nearly every corner of the globe. Entire schools
sent handmade cards; one man sent his Olympic medal. Hunter was overwhelmed. He still reads many of the cards and letters to this day.
The dad calls the public outpouring the “most humbling thing I’ve ever been a
part of.” And it was all because of one act of kindness — in a string of many — from a father to his son.
Kleis always wanted to be a dad. “I joke that you’re not going to find me in the parent’s group,” he says. “You’re going to find me in the pool or the yard playing with the kids.”
Originally from Minnesota, he moved to Texas in 2002 for a job opportunity, met his wife Amy shortly thereafter, and was married in 2005. While he grew his career in sales with companies such as Best Buy and DirectTV, he and Amy, a stay-at-home mom, started their family, first with Hunter and then with Hudson, 8.
“Becoming a father was an amazing gift,” says Kleis. “I was extremely happy. I’m probably a more emotional man than most. I was crying during [Hunter’s] birth. But he came out healthy; baby was great.”
Hunter was hitting his milestones, walking and talking. Life was good. Then suddenly, the parents began to notice red flags: extreme sensitivity to sound, an aversion to “Cheeto fingers” and walking in sand or grass. Hunter’s language regressed.
“Everything is telling me there’s something different,” Kleis remembers.
Around the same time Amy found out she was pregnant with Hudson, Hunter was diagnosed. Kleis recalls the time following the diagnosis as one of the most difficult periods in his life.
“Who will take care of Hunter when we’re gone?” Kleis wondered at the time. “Will he ever talk? What will his life look like? Daddy can’t fix this.”
But he refused to be in denial, or to bury himself in his work as an escape from his family’s reality.
“Eventually, I realized I was more upset that Hunter wasn’t going to live the life I wanted him to live,” he says. “I realized
I needed to embrace the life Hunter is going to live — that we have to change our lifestyle to conform to him.”
Along with this realization came a desire to help other parents, but Kleis wasn’t sure how to start. At a family outing to the Dallas World Aquarium, things began to click.
Hunter was ready to go, and as any parent of a child with autism knows, “when he’s ready to go, we’re ready to go.” But Hudson wanted to stay longer. Kleis explained the situation
to the general manager, who agreed to let the family return at their convenience without repurchasing tickets. “I started thinking there might be other families who are experiencing the same thing that we experienced and wondered, ‘How can we help them?’”
Kleis had always wanted to run his own business. “I wasn’t sure what,” he says, “but I wanted to make sure it was something I was passionate about.”
In 2013, he married his entrepreneurial dreams and his desire to make a difference and founded Hunter’s Autism Specials, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to helping families living with autism thrive today, tomorrow and plan for the future.”
In addition to offering resources for families living with autism, the organization provides a calendar of autism- friendly events — baseball games, outings to Top Golf and bowling, overnights at Choctaw Casino Resort, etc. — at reduced rates for families across Dallas- Fort Worth. Kleis says his greatest thrill comes from seeing the “look of relief in parent’s eyes” when they realize they’re in a safe environment.
At the organization’s first event, a Texas Legends game, other parents came up to Kleis, hugging him and crying with gratitude. That night, he told Amy, “I’ve been waiting 38 years to understand what God’s purpose is for me and he just showed me what that purpose is.” He says it was one of the most amazing nights of his life.
Eventually, Kleis left his job with DirectTV and launched a consulting business, allowing him to work from home and devote more time to Hunter’s Autism Specials.
Kleis is candid about the challenges his schedule and the family’s single income pose — on top of the stresses all parents of children with special needs face. For him and Amy, communication is key.
“There is no doubt that having a child with special needs has created additional strain on our relationship,” Kleis says. “But at the end of the day, it’s her and me driving this bus for our family. We want to make sure the boys know that we’re a unified team.”
Nights out are challenging, particularly since they don’t have any family in the area. But Kleis and Amy connect every chance they get. Sometimes it’s over dinner and a walk; sometimes it’s just a long drive.
To maintain his own sanity, Kleis goes to the gym six days a week — his “vice” — and works on the classic car he bought last year. But his mind never strays far from his two boys.
“Family is the most important thing in the world to me,” he says. “And we’re very blessed that Hunter is who he is. He’s able to ride a bike, run and giggle. He’s nonverbal for the most part, but so what? I talk enough for the both of us. He has made me a better person. He’s my best friend.”