Dawn Allen ’81 Keeps GHA Autism Supports on the Cutting Edge

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Dawn Allen '81
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Why Pfeiffer

Under the leadership of Dawn Harwood Allen ’81, its Chief Executive Officer, GHA Autism Supports of Albemarle and Wilmington keeps expanding its service offerings. The latest, for aging clients with autism who’ve developed chronic and/or debilitating medical issues, is Morrow Valley Farmstead, which should be operational by March. It’s a 10-bed community residential home on a working farm located on 50 acres at the base of Morrow Mountain in Albemarle.

Morrow Valley, which Allen developed in partnership with Atrium Health Stanly, proposes that aging GHA clients with serious medical issues can receive virtual medical care and live out their remaining days in an environment with which they’re familiar and comfortable. This would be in stark contrast to having them hospitalized, which can be costly and worsen their quality of life.

Morrow Valley is being watched with interest by autism advocates from as far away as Denmark and Japan. It “will be the first of its kind anywhere in the world,” Allen said. “It will enhance the quality of life of its residents, cut the costs, and push virtual medical care beyond what is currently being done.”

Atrium Health, making use of state-of-the-art technology, will involve itself in the Morrow Valley project by providing specialty consult coverage, virtual end-of-life planning and remote patient monitoring.

Allen earned a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Pfeiffer and, later, a Master of Education from UNC Charlotte. She joined the direct care staff of GHA Autism Supports (then known as The Group Home for the Autistic) right after she graduated Pfeiffer. She said that early on, she discovered a lifelong passion for helping people with autism, even though it was barely mentioned in the psychology textbooks she read in college and didn’t command the attention that it does today.

Brian Freeman MHA ’07, a Pfeiffer alumnus, serves as Facility Executive at Atrium Health Stanly. Over the past seven years, he has collaborated with Allen on improving the health of their communities. He lauded Morrow Valley, calling it “a robust and comprehensive virtual care platform” that  enables its clients “to receive care in an environment that is better suited for their unique needs.”

“This is both an effort to reduce the cost of care as well as improve the quality of life for the individuals of Morrow Valley Farmstead,” he added.

Dr. Kathleen Kaney is Senior Vice President, Chief Administrative Officer for the Atrium Health system. She’s collaborated with Allen on virtual care for several years, saying they’ve aspired to “serve people where they are…without compromising quality.”

Kaney said that Atrium Health will be tracking such metrics at Morrow Valley as avoidable ED visits and hospitalizations, quality of life, proactive end-of-life preparedness, and overall cost of care. 

Allen became the CEO of GHA Autism Supports in 1984, just three years after she became a staffer there. On her watch, the organization has grown from one that served five children to one that can accommodate nearly 100 individuals of all ages with a variety of services. Each of these services has addressed the evolving needs of a particular subset of clients, from young children to the recently unemployed. She’s also established Carolina Farms, which features animal-assisted therapy.

Allen credits Pfeiffer for providing the kind of opportunities and environment that enabled her to blossom as a leader early on in her work life.

“I was a shy person in high school,” she said. “I really didn’t find myself until I was in college. Pfeiffer had the environment that enabled me to become the person that I wanted to be. I was able to move into some leadership roles in student government, and I started the first Psychology Club. I felt encouraged and confident that I could thrive.”

Allen’s leadership skills were put to quite a test when it came to getting Morrow Valley Farmstead off the ground, in terms of donor support and general buy-in.

“I've been working on this for 10 years and I was told over and over again that it was a stupid idea, that it wasn't going to work,” she said. She said she kept “pushing and pushing,” refining her pitch and developing productive partnerships with the right people. The origins of Morrow Valley rest on some intriguing synergies: Allen, for example, chairs the Atrium Health Stanly Advisory Council, and Freeman serves as a GHA board member. 

The effort has clearly been worth it.

“We needed to have something where people could stay with us until their lives ended,” she said. “In Morrow Valley Farmstead, we finally have it.”


Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at www.pfeiffer.edu/newsform.​