The Cruz-Whitehurst Advocacy Award


Congratulations to Mary Palacio-Pike!  In 2002, Mary was blessed with the birth of a beautiful son, her angel, David Jr. By the time David Jr. reached 18 months of age, he was not meeting expected milestones and began to show signs of inappropriate behaviors. At the end of 2004, when David Jr. was 2 years old, he was diagnosed with encephalopathy consistent with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The family’s lives changed immediately and dramatically as they focused on raising David Jr., helping to guide him out of the seclusion of autism, as well as trying to provide the most optimal upbringing to his younger brother, Joshua. There were so many challenges and no clear roadmap to success. After years of engaging in a broad spectrum of disparate and seldom cooperative therapy approaches, it became clear that the best hope for David Jr., and other neurologically challenged children, had to be a more holistic and cooperative therapy regime which spanned disciplines and was designed around the child’s needs. Based on this belief, Crystal Academy Therapy Center was founded in August of 2009 and was expanded in 2011 to include the Crystal Academy School. Today, Crystal Academy has served more than 600 families. Part of Crystal’s mission is to continue to form alliances with community agencies and businesses in order to promote community-based instruction opportunities to increase social opportunities and life skills.

Mary currently serves as President and Director of Community Relations for Crystal Academy, where she has been instrumental in helping to create and promote opportunities for special needs children and their families in the Coral Gables area. She was nominated in 2018 for the AXA Advisors Outstanding Educator Award, as well as currently serving as a member of the Coral Gables Advisory Board on Disability Affairs. Under her direction, Crystal Academy has been the recipient of various Proclamations from the City of Coral Gables and the City of Miami. Crystal Academy has also partnered with the City of Coral Gables Government in the production of the Emmy Award Winner for best Documentary, “Embracing Autism, A Coral Gables Story.” Crystal Academy created the very first Autism Awareness event in the City of Coral Gables at the Coral Gables Museum in 2018, and held the first ASD awareness resource event at the City of Miami, MRC Building and Police Headquarters in April 2019. In addition, Crystal Academy has assisted the Coral Gables Youth Center with inclusion opportunities, training and program development. Crystal Academy has been the recipient of several grants from the Coral Gables Foundation and has been featured in Gables Living, the Coral Gables Magazine, the Mayor's Report and in many articles in the Miami Herald.

Collaboration is the defining focus of Crystal Academy. Mary is proud and blessed to count on UM-NSU CARD - not only for the children and families we serve - but also as a supportive and guiding force for our staff. UM-NSU CARD has been instrumental in the success of Crystal Academy, and immeasurably helpful in the evolution of David Jr.’s life. The family has actively participated in every Tropical Nights event since Crystal Academy opened, and Mary has had the pleasure of co-chairing the event. She is humbled and delighted to be recognized with the Cruz-Whitehurst Award at Tropical Nights 2020.