Wednesday, August 20, 2014 • 07:31
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An app in the right direction



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Janine Boleda. Photo by Lisa Rose
October 25, 2013
Four years ago, Janine Boleda, mother of three, drove to Target to get diapers. A seemingly ordinary day for most mothers, she had no idea her life was about to change.

She made every attempt to coax her seven-year-old son, Will, out of the car. He wasn't budging. She tried to reassure him using a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) card. It did nothing to smooth the transition. Transitions are difficult for kids like Will who has autism and is nonverbal. Anxiety and rigidity are common expressions of the disorder that now affects one in 88 children in the U.S. — one out of 54 for boys — according to the Center for Disease Control.

Boleda sat back in the car, tears pooling in her eyes, defeated in her efforts. She glanced at her new iPhone and remembered the look of awe on Will's face a few days before as he looked at family photos on her phone. A second later, she jumped out of the car and took a picture of the front of the Target store, then photographed the car. She climbed into the back seat and showed him the two photos.

"See Will? First Target, then car." He unbuckled his seat belt and took her hand.

That was the moment she knew she had stumbled upon something pivotal.

"In that parking lot, I needed a way to communicate with him, and I didn't have a PECS for Target. He was so anxious," she said. "I explain it to people this way. Imagine that you're born into a family and they're all speaking Japanese and for some reason, your brain cannot understand Japanese. And you never know where you're going or what's happening. You don't know what people are saying. Every now and again you pick up a word. But not always. Imagine how anxious you would feel."

Her research revealed there were no apps for people with autism or similar disabilities on the market. Yet the need was there, unfulfilled.

"My plan was to create one app to help my son," she said. "I wanted to have a system in place to communicate with him and one where other people could understand him. At the time, I was on the board of the Autism Society and running a support group and was around a lot of families who had the same needs that I did."

A biology major in college, and later, a science teacher, Boleda had nothing more than a year of programming to bring to the table. She was not deterred. She borrowed the money and bought books on software development. She hired a programmer and got to work.

In August of 2009, Good Karma Applications was born. Six months later, the very first app was launched, called, "First Then Visual Schedule." Word spread through autism communities and an article in the San Francisco Tribune, ("iPad: A Miracle For My Son With Autism,") mentioned the app with high praise. A listing in Apple's "Hot New Apps" cemented its place in the niche market.

Today, Good Karma Apps are used all over the world and throughout the United States — in homes, on the playground and in schools. The apps provide audio-visual schedules, first-then boards, task analyses, choice boards and interactive social stories.

"Instead of putting in a generic picture of a dog, you can add a photo of your own dog," said Boleda. "You can add in your own voice. That way, it is contextually relevant to the person using it.

"All of the apps are based on research and best practices," she added. "The whole goal is to help people with disabilities gain independence."

Five of the apps are IOS and one is Android. Their applicability now crosses platforms and surpasses their original intent. They are being used with stroke patients and people with short-term memory issues, such as people with dementia. Reported success has also come from people with a variety of learning challenges and development disabilities, including Down's syndrome.

According to Boleda, the growth of the company can be attributed to a user-friendly, affordable product that has fulfilled a real need. Almost no advertising has been used; it's been primarily word-of-mouth, she said. These days, she puts in a full work week from her kitchen table, virtually collaborating with her team. She fields a steady stream of thank-you letters from families across the globe.

She and her junior high school sweetheart, Tito, have made Valley Center their home for the past seven years along with Will, now 11, and their two girls, Isabella, 13 and Charlie, five.

"We love it here. People have been so kind to us and the beauty of the rolling green hills reminds me of growing up in New Zealand," said Boleda. "When you have a crazy life, you need to have quiet.

"I'm a big believer in social responsibility and I'm not one to sit on my hands," she added. "When I am solving a problem, I feel more powerful. We are all doing our part in the world and sometimes it's big and sometimes it's small. I've done plenty of small things, but this is the one time I did something bigger."

For more information on Good Karma Apps, go to www.goodkarmaapplications.com.

Do you know someone in Valley Center who is doing something interesting? Tell us about it. This will be an ongoing feature. Email: editor@valleycenter.com.

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