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12 Who Care: Ashley Kwon goes above, beyond to impact students at Jacksonville School for Autism

She has a gift for bonding with students on the autism spectrum. Ashley Kwon gives more than hugs and knows how to make students feel royal.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It caught her totally by surprise when the email came in saying that Ashley Kwon had won a 12 Who Care Community Service award. 

"I was like what is this? Who nominated me for anything? I don't deserve this," Kwon said while fighting back some tears.

No ego case for sure. Kwon has won over students at the Jacksonville School for Autism and their parents.

Antonio said, "She gives me big, sweet hugs." He smiles with a big, bright grin when he sees her.

But it's more than just a good bear hug, which reaches through to Antonio. His mom says, as an example, during a day Antonio wasn't responding verbally to her very much, "Ashely came over and he just lit up...and boom....she got this great, full-sentence response from him that I couldn't as a parent at that moment."

JSA was founded back in 2005 with two students. Now, on a new campus on the Southside, more than 50 students with differing abilities attend JSA. 

Founder and Director Michelle Dunham says she nominated Kwon for the award because "if the world had more Ashleys, everyone would feel more loved."

Credit: JSA

Her own son, Nick, who's on the autism spectrum, is 23 years old.  She says the "Nick barometer" is something she trusts because -- in some inexplicable way---he tends to be an astute judge of character.  Maybe he doesn't pour out a bunch of words to express it, but when he "gives his Nick seal of approval," Dunham says, you can bet he's bonding to someone with high character.

Nick adores Kwon.  Dunham says, "She makes him feel like a king."

Kwon says, "I'm honored -- blessed -- to be in his life."

Kwon says people who don't take the time to get to know someone on the autism spectrum just don't understand. 

"They miss out on individuals who are super intelligent," Kwon says.

Credit: Ashley Kwon with students at JSA

Kwon is actually in charge of marketing for JSA, but Dunham says she does everything from being "a receptionist to a project manager to a development officer to a teacher's assistant to a cafeteria worker to a landscape artist to a plumber."

Dunham says the students at JSA "feel respected" by Kwon. And that's huge.

Kwon says she gets emotional because she sees how hard the students work every day.

Credit: Jacksonville School for Autism

In return, she wants to pour her energy into them.  A good example?  Instead of clicking a couple of pictures here and there for yearbook photos, Dunham says Kwon takes "photo after photo after photo" of each student just to get that perfect yearbook picture.

First Coast News congratulates Ashley Kwon as a 2021 winner of our 12 Who Care Community Service awards.

Credit: JSA