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What Does Wellness Mean for Autistics? Talking with Erin Beal About Her Autism Journey.

autism journey wellness center gym equipment

Erin Beal is here to talk about her adult autism journey, her new Autism Wellness Center, and how the internet autism community got her through.

erin beal autism journey wellness center of southwest Michigan
Erin Beal, founder of the Autism Wellness Center of Southwest Michigan

Today, I am thrilled to have Erin Beal with us. Erin is the autistic and ADHD founder of the Autism Wellness Center of SW Michigan, as well as a personal trainer and a 2nd year Masters student of Developmental Disabilities at Columbia University. Erin offers freelance wellness consulting for kids, teens, and adults who are autistic or ADHD. 

Erin was originally a communications expert and a graduate student in English until she was diagnosed with autism at age 30. Since then, she’s dedicated her career to researching and supporting individuals on the autism spectrum across all contexts and across the lifespan.

In this interview, we’re talking about what exactly goes into getting a Master’s in Developmental Disabilities, Erin’s journey from doing something completely different through getting an autism spectrum diagnosis and devoting all her energy to getting this Wellness Center open, and how much the online autism community has meant to us both. I really enjoyed our conversation and hope you will, too!

? Rather listen than read this post? This interview on Erin’s wellness center and autism journey is based off of Episode 15 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify

Introduction to Neurodiverging

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About Erin Beal of the Autism Wellness Center of SW Michigan

Today, I am thrilled to have Erin Beal with us. Erin is the autistic founder of the Autism Wellness Center of SW Michigan, as well as a personal trainer and a 2nd year Masters student of developmental disabilities at Columbia University. Erin offers freelance wellness consulting for kids, teens, and adults who are autistic or ADHD.

Book a virtual session with Erin from anywhere in the world by emailing autismwellnesscenterswmi(at)

Erin was originally a communications expert and a graduate student in English until she was diagnosed with autism at age 30. Since then, she’s dedicated her career to researching and supporting individuals on the autism spectrum across all contexts and across the lifespan.

I happened to see a news article about Erin’s very new Autism Wellness Center and immediately reached out to see if she’d come talk with me, because the thought of a wellness space for autistic people by an autistic person is so gorgeous. I hope her center spurs a whole movement!

In this interview, we’re talking about what exactly goes into getting a Master’s in Developmental Disabilities, Erin’s journey from doing something completely different through getting an autism spectrum diagnosis and devoting all her energy to getting this Wellness Center open, and how much the online autism community has meant to us both. I really enjoyed our conversation and hope you will, too!

Interested in being a guest on Neurodiverging? Send a pitch here!

What’s the Developmental Disabilities Program Like?

Danielle Sullivan: I heard you’re getting your Master’s in Developmental Disabilities at Columbia University? Can you tell us about the program you’re doing, and how you became interested in it?

Erin Beal: The program that I’m in is really cool because it’s pretty innovative, in that it’s really focused on serving the individual across different contexts and across the lifespan. So from little ones to senior citizens, if we’re talking autistic people, they could be people who are verbal, people who are non-verbal, people who have an intellectual disability, people who do not, people just all across the board.

And not only autism, but other developmental disabilities, such as ADHD, Down syndrome, Fragile X and things like that. The actual exercise part is not really a part of my core curriculum, but is my additional training and background and interest, and where I specialize my projects and elective courses and whatnot. 

teachers college developmental disabilities
Teachers College of Columbia University by Bohao Zhao

Danielle: Thanks for telling us about this! I just had no idea that there was a Master’s level Developmental Disabilities program available for students. You’re in Michigan, so this is an online program?

Erin: Yeah, and it’s really cool because, I think it launched two years ago, they launched the online program. So they have had an in-person program for years and years. And Teachers College is the oldest graduate school in the country, and so there’s such a long tradition there yet, they have this online program component as well.

And they’re more forward thinking than what you might expect looking at, like, a BCBA program. And also just very lovely and accommodating. And so if anyone has to get their Master’s in Autism Studies or something in that area, I would definitely look into that program.

Danielle: That’s great to hear that it’s like an autistic-friendly place to be, because that can be hard to find!

Erin: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

Erin’s Autism Journey

Danielle: So, how did you become interested in doing this kind of program?

Erin: So, I previously was getting my Master’s in Applied Linguistics, and then I had some problems in school related to autism, related to just being autistic and interacting with neurotypical professors … or I don’t know if they’re neurotypical, but non-autistic professors.

And also dealing with the big change of moving to a new place and starting a whole new sort of chapter and identity. I also just really didn’t like it. It’s not like a whole woe is me story, really, but it just wasn’t working out in so many different ways. And so shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with autism. So, then I got into strength training, snd then it all just kind of came together.

Danielle: That’s awesome. That’s so great. So you were diagnosed in your early 30s? Is that right?

Erin: Yeah, I was 30 when I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I was 18 when I was diagnosed with ADD. But, when I saw the doctor for that, they were basically like, “You can learn study techniques,” and they sent me on my merry way. And so…

Danielle: So not the most helpful…

Erin: Yeah, I didn’t really know anything about it, and there was no treatment. So I guess, you know, coming to know myself as autistic, which I was actually self-diagnosed for maybe about a year before I was formally diagnosed…

Danielle: Me too!

Erin: …Okay, yeah! So yeah, I learned sort of about myself as being autistic and being ADHD at the same time. And they’re so linked, it’s hard to separate them. But, I did receive the diagnoses at different times.

Danielle:  This is so interesting to hear about because I feel like I’ve talked to so many women who are diagnosed autistic a little bit later in their 30s or 40s or 50s, and obviously it happened to me too, so it’s just interesting to hear your experience there.

Erin:  Yeah, I mean, at least for me, and I think probably a lot of people can relate to this experience, but there were signs since I was a baby. However, I always did well in school. And so, being kind of quiet and shy, being female-passing, being a cis woman, that was just kind of okay, for me.

But it was as I  was coming up against new experiences and new situations that either I didn’t know how to handle, I didn’t have the right mentorship and also, feeling a lot of emotional regulation issues due to being unhappy in what I was doing and knowing that it wasn’t for me.

Danielle: Yeah. Yeah, I feel like a bad fit at work or school or any other kind of environment can really overwhelm us pretty quickly and make everything fall apart. When it seems like it was going okay, then suddenly, it’s just Boom, crash, nothing works anymore.

Erin: Right, especially with that hyperfocus or inability to focus. I kind of go from extreme to extreme, which works out for me in terms of opening the Wellness Center, because that’s just been my focus. I’ve just been hammering through that goal.

But, when it’s something that is really difficult… I don’t want to sound this way, but, when you just don’t care about it? You know? 

Danielle: Yes, I know! Don’t worry! I think probably everybody listening knows. Yeah. Yeah. Because how do you put your energy there when you could be doing this other really cool thing? 

Erin: Exactly. And it was like, “Oh, I can just stay here with these people that don’t like me because of who I am, and the way that I think and the ideas that I have, and the way that I communicate?”

Danielle: Yeah, or you could do this other really cool thing that has a lot more potential to make you happy and reach other people as well. Yeah, it doesn’t seem like a hard decision!

Erin: Maybe that’s misleading because it didn’t happen, like a pivot point. It was really like, there’s a lot of wandering in between then and now. But I have been working on this for over two years anyway. So it’s really been a long process. 

Yeah, I guess if you reduce it, it makes it sound like, “Oh, I left that and I discovered myself and then I did this,” but it was really like a lot more twists and turns and ups and downs and years passed and whatnot. 

Self-Diagnosis and the Online Autism Community

erin beal of autism wellness center
Erin Beal

Danielle: Yeah, and especially going through a self diagnosis process, from my experience anyway, tell me if yours was different, but it’s so much research and so much questioning like, “Am I just faking this thing? Is this real?”

You know, just finding this stuff on the internet or reading it in a book, you know, “Could that actually be me?” and that takes so much energy and so much time, and there’s so much of your self-identity wrapped up in that, that you’re right.

It’s not like a quick, “Boom, I’m here!” It’s this huge journey of trying to convince your family or the people around you, you know, while you’re convincing yourself.

Erin: Yeah, I mean, the people around you, your whole circle can change with coming out as autistic. And especially with a self diagnosis, I was met with resistance, I guess you could say. Not just from lay people, but from therapists too, who didn’t know what they were talking about. They thought they did.  They would try to lead me in the direction of “No, that’s not right.” 

Or, “You can’t possibly be autistic because of the way you look or XYZ.” And, [I was] just holding on the whole time, using the autistic community online as such an anchor, and really turning to … it’s almost a spiritual thing, when you’re [thinking], “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” 

Sometimes I really don’t like interacting with neurotypical people and living in a neurotypical world. And, sometimes the world is just too loud and busy. And I just feel like, I don’t care about any of these social structures, and any of these, like, these rituals that don’t make sense to me. 

But when I feel that way, it always helps me to, like, have a turn-to-Jesus moment, but like, turn to the autistic community, you know? I mean, I’m a spiritual person as well, not intending to make fun of anyone into Christianity whatsoever. But like…

Danielle: …that feeling of finding your people, right? Yeah.

Erin: Yeah. And so, having faith in that collective belief system, and being able to reaffirm, “Yes, I am autistic. I’m not just making this up. I’m not crazy. This is a developmental thing. I can trace this back to before I can even remember, you know?”

Danielle: Yeah, I’m 35, and I can only imagine how many people there are who are older than I am, that have never been diagnosed and will never be diagnosed, because they’re not part of the autistic community online. Because I don’t think I personally would have ever come to that [idea], you know, without some input from other people. 

And it’s hard to find autistic community in the random location that you end up, especially if you’re a student. I moved to Colorado for my Master’s program. I’m not from here. It can be hard to learn… the culture is different here. I had to learn a totally new culture just to make basic connections, much less to actually find the people I’m trying to find. 

I think you’re right, the amount of energy that we’re forced to spend with the … What did you say, the silly “neurotypical rituals,” right? Yeah. So it’s so frustrating. It’s so much energy, and we could be doing anything else with it. So yeah, I think I hear what you’re saying that that community is so important to build those bridges.

Erin: Yeah, you’re faced with that. It’s not only affirming, but it can be energizing in that way, and I think autistic people are really funny. So, there’s a lot of humor in the autistic communities and so it’s just, you get information and relatableness and, I don’t know, I feel like you get to see like, the rawness and intensity of life that I experience that is not really mirrored back to me in by a society.

So it just feels like very real and is rejuvenating, almost, in a way. And also reminds me why I want to do this, because there are a lot of young people, and if I was 14 or something, I could have really used someone like myself now.

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The Autism Wellness Center of Southwest Michigan

Danielle: Oh my gosh, me too, for sure. So on that note, I’m going to switch us over to the the Wellness Center itself. So, your goal is to help folks with autism and ADHD primarily, right?

When you were thinking about putting this thing together – and you said, you’ve been working on it for like, two years, right – so what went into the process of envisioning how to create a safe space? And as well, a sensory-safe space? Can you tell me a little bit about your process? 

Erin: Yeah, so I call it, a sensory managed space. So I’ve used sound blocking curtains, acoustic sound absorbing panels on the walls, LED lighting, and natural lighting, and other comfort elements to make it a sensory managed space.

And also, the way that it’s set up being very visual in nature was inspired by art installments, and museum exhibitions. I briefly worked in marketing at a museum. That was a terrible experience, and I was fired and it sucked! But…

Danielle: But you got something out of it!

Erin: Yeah, exactly. I learned a lot in the short, very short time that I was there. I learned a lot about how exhibitions are staged, in terms of flowing from room to room, and how elements are arranged, and how they’re using very common, raw materials and just painting and building to create something that looks more fantastical, like with lights and stuff like that.

I started researching more about lights and LED lights, and light colors and tones, and really thinking about the feel of each space, and thinking about the function, and how I could pair that function with a theme.   

So, yeah, so I can orally take you through the center. So first, you come in the front door, and immediately there are cardboard cutouts of bodybuilders. Really silly –  they’re supposed to be life-sized, but they’re like five feet tall!

Danielle: Life-sized for me, then!

Erin: Like, I don’t think so, they shrunk this giant dude!

But yeah, so and then it’s like sensory elements. So when you walk in, I wanted to set the tone of it being a place where things are not normal. It doesn’t like look weird or anything, I think it’s pretty cool.

Danielle: Well, you walk into a lot of fitness spaces, and there’s a lot of noise and a lot of very yellow, bright light in these big echoey spaces. That’s what I think of when I think of going to the gym. Your [place] sounds like you put a lot of thought into reducing that kind of [stuff].

Erin: Yeah! Only one room out of the entire building is the studio, where working out is done. So, the other rooms are all interconnected; it used to be a hair salon. So if you can imagine, walking through the lobby of a hair salon, and then past the shampoo things, and then over here to where they cut it or whatever. So they’re interconnected rooms.

And then the one where we’re working out has every window and exit lined with two layers of curtains, one of them being sound blocking, or sound absorbing. And then there are the acoustic panels on the walls there. And so it’s not only more tranquil and serene, but it’s also very cool and dark.

Danielle: How lovely!

Erin: And so then, connected to that, there’s a lounge area with a big comfy couch. And there [are] a bunch of spa goodies in there. So there’s a foot bath, there’s a neck and shoulder massager, and there’s a good manicure kit with a UV light … what else… epsom salts and essential oils and stuff.

So, if I’m working with someone who is accompanied by an adult or parent or caretaker, then they can relax while I’m doing the personal training. And then when I’m done with them, then switch, then the autistic person can do whatever they want. And the rest of the center, which not only includes all the stuff I mentioned, but also there’s an electric guitar and other musical instruments and arts and crafts.

There’s a big paper roll on the wall that you can draw on, and there’s a galaxy room with a projector light and a cool tent. So, it’s like you’re camping out in the stars. And so they can do whatever they want then while I talk with the parent.

Not all the clients are children – actually, I don’t have any clients right now who are children, but this is sort of part of the package. So, a parent comes in and then they just relax and decompress for like 30 minutes. And then, their kid can just have at it and be themselves and it’s sensory managed space, while they get to after like being called relaxed and everything then like they can talk to me about you know, their perspective on things and, you know, things that they can do to help the situation. Yeah.

Danielle: Yeah, that sounds great! That galaxy room sounds like right up my alley, I think I would be there the whole time!

For the Wellness Center, you’re obviously targeting this toward autistic people, what different needs would you say that autistic people have? Like, there’s the sensory issues of going into say, you know, the Y down the street, or a traditional gym. But are there other aspects to being autistic or having ADHD that are improved or helped by like, a specialized personal training?

Erin: Absolutely. So I guess, right off the bat, the first thing that comes to mind is that this is a one-on-one space. So you’re not going to walk in and see other people there besides myself. It’s going to be by appointment. So you know that it’s your time, your space, no one is going to intrude on it, you have total control over what we do.

Not only that, but the way that I present the information is autism-friendly. That goes back to my master’s program, and not only that, but my previous master’s program, I was studying applied linguistics, which is mostly teaching English as a second language. So there’s a lot of education and instruction there. So [I’m] presenting the information in a combination of ways: visually, and verbally. There are like tiny little whiteboards everywhere..

Danielle: We’re a whiteboard house.Yeah, I have a son with autism, too. So we’re both of us autistic. And then my partner and my daughter are ADHD. So we have a lot of different [neurotypes]. Like, I am repeating myself a lot, partly just because of their ages. But also, yes, we have lots of whiteboards and lots of the little cards with the pictures on them, I’ve forgotten the name of them, but I made them.

They’re just posted everywhere, just as reminders or, you know, for other kinds of messaging. So that’s really cool. So you maybe would have the verbal instruction and a take-home packet or a video that they could watch or something, for the exercises? That’s great. 

Erin: And then the other thing that I do that I’ve not seen gyms ever, but I include the gym equipment that they use.

Danielle: Oh, great.

Erin: Yeah. So because everything is individualized, not everyone will use the same equipment. I really do not believe in indefinite personal training or never-ending personal training.

A lot of personal trainers want people to do that, you know? And that makes sense. That’s their career. But really, that doesn’t make sense for most people. My goal is to get people set up so that they can do it at home. And one of the things with that is just getting the right equipment. And, it’s not easy to find what equipment.

Danielle: It’s got in my way a couple of times, yeah.

Erin: Right. You go to a gym, and there’s like a million things to try out, then you can find your space there. But that takes a while.

Danielle: And it’s loud and awful in there! So why would you even go in in the first place? Yeah, that’s my problem. And then you’re looking at which strength band should I get on the internet? And that’s also a problem. So that’s really cool!

Erin: Yeah, and it’s always the question of like, you know, which type of weight, like a dumbbell or a kettlebell or a weighted ball? And then it’s, how much weight – 10 pounds? 

Danielle: So you are individually assessing each client and trying to help hear what they want or are trying to get out of the sessions. And then, yeah, specialized equipment that works for their body type and where they are and what their goals are. Is that right?

autism journey wellness center gym equipment
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Healthy Doesn’t Look A Certain Way

Erin:  Yeah. And another thing: a lot of clients that go to traditional personal trainers, their goal is to lose as much weight as quickly as possible or to look a certain way or to alter their body composition. And so, they work out really hard to get those results really fast.

I just come from a totally different paradigm, where I know how much exercise is required, based on the scientific literature that’s out there, how much you actually need, and what intensities and what different types to prevent chronic disease and to feel good. There are different exercises that can improve balance, that’s something that is important to me, is balance and stability and mobility. You don’t get that from running on a treadmill.

I guess it’s just a very different paradigm where, you know, I found working with other personal trainers, and I’m so thankful that I have because I’ve learned so much, but there’s a big attitude. It’s a big, misinformed attitude running in that field that healthy looks a certain way, or healthy is a certain thing. And, you know, that’s really not the case!

We know from the scientific literature – and maybe they’ll discover something in the future and have to change it, because that’s science! But right now we know that you can be a little bit overweight without it affecting your health. You don’t have to be as thin as possible. There are different body types. And some people have more muscle and more fat and other people, it’s really hard for them to get muscle or fat.

And I’m not even thinking about any of that with my clients! We’re just like, “Okay, are you sleeping at night? No? Okay, let’s fix that!” Using movement to do that.

Danielle: If you walk into a traditional fitness space, and my personal body type is, I’m relatively strong, I’m pretty fat, I’m never going to be like a particularly skinny person. And you feel like you’re trying to go in and maybe work on your on your balance. A lot of us, autistics and ADHD, have terrible balance, and a lot of dyspraxia and a lot of lack of awareness [of] where our bodies are, and certain kinds of exercise can really help with that. But to go have to go to a place where you’re feeling judged for not trying to be skinny, or not trying to lose 20 pounds, can be really tough on top of all the other stuff that is tough about going to the gym.

So it’s I just think it’s really fantastic to hear that your approach is so different and so focused on function, like, “How can we improve your life? Or how can we improve your goals and your energy and your happiness?”

Erin: Yeah, for me, it’s about overall wellness, you know, not about fitness. Movement is a part of most people’s everyday life and health and wellness. The perceptions are really different.

And not only that, but it’s intimidating to go into a gym, and feel like you don’t know what you’re doing,  feel like people are looking at you. Even working as a personal trainer, and going into the same gym that I worked at, and working out, and losing my balance here and there, and being able to recover myself and know my limits where I’m not hurting myself, and knowing to go slow and change my posture, and having people look at me, like, “What is this girl doing? You know, like, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Because she lost her balance a little bit.”

The overall attitude, it’s so not helpful. And it’s not scientific! And also, I feel like, that’s not a good way for me personally, to think and feel. And, you know, being a perfectionist! 

There are a lot of autistic women and women with OCD who have eating disorders, and I’m not here to perpetuate that sort of message to a group of people that I know might be more vulnerable to being hurt by it. And yeah, it’s really just not any of my focus, and it doesn’t come into my mind at all, and kind of surprises me then when I am reminded that people think like…

Danielle: …that that’s what this kind of [autism wellness] center might be, or that’s what is expected of a fitness space.

Erin: Right, exactly. Whereas I’m focused on overall wellness. So that’s not just about movement, but it’s about you know, creativity and relaxing – and not just relaxing as in a leisure way, but also relaxing your nervous system from not being as assaulted by sounds and lights and whatnot. I mean, it’s not like the center exists in a sensory deprivation tank. There’s still noises, but, you know….

Danielle: But just little things can make room a lot better for us. And, you know, that’s been your focus and I’m sure without even walking into the room that it’s a much more calming space than going to a traditional fitness area, though.

Even the occupational therapists office I’ve been in, some of them work really hard to reduce sensory input, but some of them do not. And that’s frustrating considering – I’m a fan of OT, I think it’s it depends on the practitioner, but overall, I think it’s a good approach. But still, individual therapists sometimes don’t seem to think about what their clients might benefit from.

I think there must be something about walking into a wellness center that is run and created by somebody who’s autistic that just makes you feel like you’re welcome here. You’re coming home. This is like part of your community. And the fitness space in a lot of gyms are just not my community at all. They can make you feel very alienated.

Erin: Yeah, absolutely. And it makes sense, why gyms are the way that they are. I think most people would probably kind of scratch their heads if you tried to put “calming” and “workout” in the same sentence, you know. I think it’s great personally.

I like strength training. I like doing it heavy and slow anyway. And I don’t have cardio equipment at the center. If we’re doing cardio, it’s gonna be as an added benefit with something else that we’re also doing. But it makes sense why gyms are the way they are, to keep people’s energies up and keep them hyped. And I still love going to the gym.

That’s definitely my thing. I really want [my center] to feel like a home when you go there.

Danielle: You know, that sounds lovely. Wonderful!

Erin: You can come in whenever you want!

Danielle: Thank you, I appreciate it, if I’m ever in Michigan! That would be nice! I’m in Colorado, and I really do wish there was something like this closer to us. I’ve found occupational therapists that we like that are not coming from a personal trainer perspective, but do sort of slightly similar things in helping you focus in on an area like, improving this muscle group might help your balance or might help whatever issue you’re having.

But it’s still not, you know, they’re not neurodivergent, most of them. Some of them are. And it’s still in this facility where there are kind of lots of other clients and lots of therapists working in one big gym-esque type of space together. It can be very distracting and very loud. And sometimes….

Erin: …hectic?

Danielle: …hectic is a great word! Yeah, thank you. 

Erin: Yeah, that energy. One thing that I always think of is, you know, one of the big things that we learned when I was studying more of the education stuff is that you can’t learn information when you have anxiety, when your anxiety is up, or any emotion has been aroused. That’s just the way the brain works.

If you go into a space and they are a bunch of people running around or yelling and talking over one another, or even just sneakers squeaking … And all the materials that just amplify and echo all those noises.

If you go into this space and you’re calmer, then you can focus more and learn more. I think that establishing or reinforcing or strengthening that mind-body connection is so important for autistic people, or anyone who struggles to manage their emotions in some way, whether that’s through regulation, or through…

Danielle: …even identifying emotions can be difficult for a lot of us.

Erin: Right, yeah. Or even just feeling hunger when you’re hungry, you know. And so I think bringing that awareness and that consciousness back into our bodies is really helpful. It’s been super helpful for me, as an autistic person. And I’ve seen autistic people elsewhere really take to strength training. And, I think it’s because of that the way that it feels, that pressure and resistance. 

Danielle: Awesome! Well, thanks so much for this conversation and for being here today! I learned a ton. To finish up, is there anything you want to say to other autistic folks who are interested in starting their own business, or interested in doing something similar to what you’ve done with going back for your masters?

Erin Beal: Yeah! I would say to an autistic person who is looking to start a business, or start a new chapter, or take a step in their career education or personal life: I guess, one thing that, if I didn’t have I wouldn’t have made it this far, is being able to ignore people. Because exactly zero people believed in me. And so that’s like, over two years of people making you feel like you’re crazy, you know? Like, you’re literally delusional.

People don’t know what you’re doing every day with your work, and it’s just like, “Oh, yeah, I’m starting a wellness center!” and people will be like, “Oh, no, you’re not.”  And so like, really, like, trying to power through that, like, “I’m not crazy. I know what I’m doing. I’m the one with my education. Like, I’m an expert in my field. I’m not just pulling some random career out of a hat and trying to make it work.”

Remind yourself that you’re the expert of your own life, and you’re the expert of your own person. And if you believe in yourself, then never, ever, ever let anyone tell you that your dreams are not going to come true. And if someone tells you that, get them out of your life immediately.

Danielle: That’s so fantastic, thank you so much!

Get in Touch with Erin!

Get In Touch with Danielle!


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