May 5—Virginia Leffen, a champion of children with autism in the Four-State Area, died Sunday at her home. She was 91.
A $3 million donation from Leffen and husband Bill in 2011 greatly enhanced Freeman Health System's efforts to rebuild its autism center, destroyed months earlier by the May 22 tornado. Upon completion, the center was renamed in the couple's honor, becoming a model for providing services for those with autism spectrum disorders.
"Virginia took great pleasure in visiting with the children and celebrating their victories and milestones," said Paula Baker, Freeman president and CEO. "(She) was truly a compassionate and loving woman who will be long remembered and deeply missed."
At the time of the couple's donation in 2011, Baker told the Globe the donation "can never be measured." It is impossible, she said, "to measure the impact of changing a child's life."
Leffen was born Oct. 17, 1929, in Hallowell, Kansas. She was an interior designer for most of her life, and her work was featured in a number of businesses in Joplin, Columbus and Pittsburg, Kansas.
She was a member of St. Peter's Catholic Church and Twin Hills Golf and Country Club.
She and Bill were married for 15 years before his death in 2016.
Edie Spera, director of the autism center, described Leffen as a "beautiful and classy lady."
Because of the couple's generosity nearly a decade ago, she said, "the center is a bright and wonderful place to come to work every day; it (continues to) fulfill the hopes and dreams of so many families."
The donation allowed the former Ozark Center for Autism to place all of its services in a single location, including its diagnostic center, classrooms, mock rooms that replicate the home environment, a small theater, a kitchen for cooking and a multipurpose gymnasium. There are few centers of that caliber, treating autistic children, found anywhere in the world, she said. Since 2011, the number of people the center serves has more than doubled.
"Her legacy — both of their legacies — will live on," Spera said, "because what they've created here will continue to help families for years to come."
A prayer service will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Parker Mortuary chapel, with visitation to follow until 8 p.m. Funeral Mass will be at 1 p.m. Friday at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Joplin, with the Rev. J. Friedel officiating.
Memorials are being directed to either the Columbus Community Foundation or the Bill and Virginia Leffen Center for Autism.