Joshua Bolen is a visionary. He is a man using his own life’s undertakings, ever-evolving knowledge of the autism spectrum, and passion for the importance of human connection to create rich experiences of authentic collaboration. He is in constant thought of ways to reach a community that is often underserved and does so through a completely limitless lens. For Bolen, it is his own personal journey that has made his foundation and work with Fashion Honors Autism even more meaningful.
Growing up, school was a place where Bolen learned to develop the best coping mechanisms—ones that would mask his learning disabilities. He knew he wanted to be successful but could not understand why he could steadfastly study and still fail. Soon he was diagnosed with a speech impediment as well as learning difficulties that made it more challenging for him to grasp concepts. He was given a label that placed him in special education. It was this label that stunted his confidence which hindered his growth. During a time and within a culture where special education was shunned upon, Bolen felt he needed to isolate that part of his life in order to survive.
“Most of my struggles were in going to school,” Bolen says. “No one really knew I had a learning disability because I hid that from all my friends. I would run to the class I needed to go in, and I would strategize every single day how I could get into this classroom without being seen. It was literally all I thought about.”
It was through his persistence and the love and support from his family that he would graduate high school and continue his education post-graduation. However, once he became an adult, he chose to distance himself as far from special education as he could. He did not want to be a part of anything that had to do with educational struggle, and he denied himself the opportunity for some time. But, as Bolen would describe, “it was a God thing,” and destiny would instead carve another, more beautiful path.
Many things fell into place once Bolen first decided to work with a young man who was on the spectrum. He realized he was able to connect with him in ways that others may not have been able. Over the years he watched him grow in confidence, and it sparked a renewed sense of purpose in Bolen’s life. He spearheaded Fit to Fly, a fitness program for kids on the spectrum, and through this was contacted by the Joshua Center, a non-profit organization that provides services for children and families with neurological impairments.
Always the innovator, fashion-forward Bolen wanted to utilize his experience as a model with Exposure Model and Talent to help others, and he began to wonder what he could do next that would truly embody all he had hoped to accomplish. It was during a routine workout that a mentor would ignite the flame that would become Fashion Honors Autism.
When the idea came to Bolen he was not immediately bogged down with the “how,” he just knew it had to “be.” He knew he wanted local youth with autism to be an essential part of the whole process. He knew that he wanted to partner kids with a model mentor who would guide them along the way, and he knew he wanted to showcase their partnership in the most celebratory of ways.
He would dive in head-first and develop a non-profit that would put children in the center of spreading autism awareness in a fun and fulfilling way. It was through his personal experience that he was able to create a program that enables the model mentor to develop a trust and bond with their mentee. They then coach them how to walk, how to pose, and how to be confident in a photo shoot. And it all culminates when they walk the runway in their annual charity event.
It is through our workshops and annual fundraiser, the black-tie charity fashion show, that we execute our mission: to partner with local fashion communities to empower youth living with autism spectrum disorder to live happier, healthier lives.
It has been a true labor of love that provides families with a free invaluable experience. In three years, FHA has raised just under $3,000 with most expenses coming out of Bolen’s pocket. But he knows this is just the beginning, and no one is more excited to see where it goes from here.
“Just to see each kid be able to come in, take on an opportunity like this, go through the process and own it, and then take what we teach them and put it toward their own needs. To me that’s like the coolest thing.”