When Margaret and Mark Fairbank’s son, Harry, was diagnosed with autism the couple was told “lower your expectations” for their child. But Margaret had other ideas and became a tireless advocate for her son. In 2012, she and her husband established Islands of Brilliance, a workforce development program based in art, design, and a STEM-based curriculum.
Today, Harry is a successful UW-Milwaukee graduate, and Islands of Brilliance in Milwaukee is one of the most successful programs of its type in the country.
“We are changing perceptions of those on the autism spectrum from people with disabilities to people with capabilities,” said Fairbanks.
The program was hatched nine years ago in Discovery World’s media lab, when students worked one-on-one with professional designers and artists from the community, using design software.
By 2016 she left her role as director of special education at Whitefish Bay High School to focus the nonprofit more on future employment, as well as increasing the likelihood of independence for people with autism.
“The program had reached a tipping point, and needed full-time attention in order to reach its potential and impact in the community,” Fairbanks said. “Our goal is to meet students where they are, and make sure that they are excited and eager to participate. If the student has a successful first experience, they will keep coming back and all the while building self confidence. Very few students only come once.”
Prior to the pandemic, Islands of Brilliance enrollment reached 500, mostly returning students. Since going virtual, students from a dozen states have participated.
“We actually increased the frequency of programming in 2020 — we see students almost daily now, and we love it,” she said.
Community and corporate foundations provide the lion’s share of support through grant funding. Major supporters include Bader Philanthropies, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and a growing number of corporate supporters including Northwestern Mutual. Tuition, consultative services and corporate partnerships make up the rest.
Fairbanks earned her bachelor’s degree in theater from Emerson University, and a master’s in special education from the University of Minnesota. She had a successful career as an on-camera actress working in Milwaukee and Chicago before she began her teaching career at Milwaukee College Prep, an urban charter school, where she supported the first student enrolled at MCP who lived with autism.