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Boggs girl takes on autism one key chain at a time

| Tuesday, April 1, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Louis B. Ruediger
Sophia Smith, 11, of Kittanning, shows some of her key chains she created to support autism awareness. Monday, March 31, 2014.

An 11-year-old girl from Boggs has found a key to helping others understand those living with autism.

Sophia Smith, a fifth-grader at Dayton Elementary School, figured out a way to make money to benefit autism awareness by making and selling colorful beaded key chains in honor of her 2-year-old brother, Lucas Hunia, who suffers from the disorder.

She has gotten permission from officials at her school to take Friday afternoon off so she and family members can sell key chains in Kittanning along Market Street. They will set up in front of Farmers & Merchants Bank from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. before crossing the street to sell near L.A. Taco's food truck, which will be parked in front of Rosebud Mining headquarters.

Smith's fundraising event coincides with the first week of National Autism Awareness Month.

Her mother, Jessica Hunia, said her daughter got the idea when she received a key chain kit for Christmas.

“She told me: ‘Momma, I can make these and sell them for brother,' ” Hunia said.

Hunia's son was diagnosed with autism at 16 months and is considered to be high-functioning.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects one in 68 children, according to the Autism Speaks website. Those who fall within the range of the autism spectrum struggle in varying degrees with social interaction and communication.

“Early intervention is key, and he started immediately,” Hunia said. “My daughter was very much a part of it, helping to teach him sign language.”

But Smith has been affected by negative responses to her brother's outbursts when he has felt overwhelmed in public, another common struggle for those suffering with autism.

There's no physical deformity from autism to show something is wrong, his mother said.

Smith heard the comments and saw the mean stares from adults who assumed her brother was simply acting out and needing discipline during his public outbursts. Hunia said her daughter believes people might be less judgmental if they learn more about autism.

So when Smith decided to make key chains and donate the proceeds to the organization Autism Speaks, her family rallied to the cause.

She invested $104 of her birthday money to buy supplies such as ribbons, beads and puzzle charms — a symbol for autism — and got to work. She met her initial $300 goal in one week by selling 100 key chains for $3 each.

Now she has a $900 goal and plans to have at least 400 more key chains ready to sell by Friday.

“A lot of people donated when they heard about the cause,” Hunia said. “But this is completely her project.”

Steven Engler, a family friend from State College, plans to run in Pittsburgh's half-marathon on May 4 to raise money for the Organization for Autism Research in honor of Lucas.

He said he was impressed with Smith's idea and has helped make the key chains after taking lessons from her and her mother. He has been filling orders at State College, has made 20 key chains and plans to join Smith in Kittanning on Friday.

“Hopefully, we'll sell some key chains,” Engler said. “Sophia's doing an awesome job to take that initiative for her brother.”

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or

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