Walkers to gather at Idlewild for autism fundraiser

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 12:31 a.m.

Walkers from all over the area will gather on Sunday at Idlewild Park in Ligonier to help change the future for those who struggle with autism.

Leading the pack at the Laurel Highlands Walk Now for Autism Speaks will be the Southmoreland Superheroes. The team is comprised of teachers and staff, students and members of the community from the Southmoreland School District.

“We are united with two common goals — to raise funds for research and to help increase awareness,” said team leader Kelly Most, who is the autistic support teacher at the Southmoreland Primary Center. “Through our fundraising efforts, I've considered every person who has contributed in some way to be a ‘superhero' to our families who are touched by autism.”

The annual event, which has a fundraising goal of $135,000 this year, benefits Autism Speaks.

Walk Now for Autism Speaks is a fun-filled, family-friendly event and is our single most powerful force to fund vital research that will lead us to the answers we need,” said Lisa Maloney, senior director of field development for Autism Speaks.

According to the organization's website, autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disorder in the United States with 1 in 68 children diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder.

The money raised at the event is used to support the four pillars of the organization's mission.

“We are dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a possible cure for autism,” Maloney said. “We strive to raise public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families and society, and we work to bring hope to all who deal with the hardships of this disorder. We are committed to raising the funds necessary to support these goals.”

This will be the fifth year the Southmoreland team will participate in the event.

“Southmoreland is our top fundraising school team. Last year they raised $12,635.94. To date, they raised $9,878.88 and are still bringing in money,” Maloney said. “They are also our largest walk team with over 75 participants.”

Most said she is confident the group will reach this year's goal of $10,500. She said the team has 84 members registered for the walk, which doesn't include those who will register the day of the walk, so she anticipates that number to grow.

“The outpouring of support from our community has been incredible! I am very proud to be a part of something so amazing,” Most said.

Fundraising efforts began in the fall. Most said they will continue right up until walk day.

“Our fundraising events this year have included: McTeacher's Night, Dime Wars, Puzzle Piece Sales, Bake Sale, Bunny Hop for Autism, T-shirt Sale, and the RC Racing for Autism Event,” Most said. “Our high school students and Mr. (Chris) Fabian have been huge contributors to our fundraising efforts and we could not do it without their support.”

Teachers, staff and students from Southmoreland volunteer their time at the walk doing things like working the food tent, running the kids' area, assisting families as buddies, cheering on walkers, providing families with directions, etc.

“It is humbling to work with a community that is dedicated to our mission and to the autism community,” Maloney said. “For the past five years the students and teachers at Southmoreland have worked hard to help the autism community. Their fundraising is amazing, but their willing to help and support our organization in other ways is also outstanding.

“We have two teachers, Kelly Most and Chris Fabian, who have volunteered on our walk planning committee and have dedicated countless hours organizing and planning the walk event. The students from Southmoreland also volunteer on walk day helping with set up and organizing kid friendly activities. They are an invaluable resource,” she added.

Participating in the walk is special for Paula Welc and her son Christopher Ansell, 24, both of Mt. Pleasant.

This will be the second year Ansell, who has autism spectrum disorder, has participated in the walk. Ansell will be walking with Team Viking at this year's event and hopes to have a team of his own next year.

Welc said when her son attended school, he went to the Southmoreland Autistic support through Mt. Pleasant Area School District and the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit.

“When Chris was diagnosed at age 5 with autism, it was very difficult to find any help. Now there are so many resources and so many great teachers and students learning more about what autism is and how challenging it is, not only for the child/adult, but also for the teachers and the community. I wish when my son was diagnosed I would have had these resources. Seeing the group of walkers gives you faith for all the other children who have been diagnosed that they will get the help that is needed,” Welc said.

In addition to those walking, the event is it open to the public.

“We have lots of activities, refreshments, Valley Dairy Ice cream, hot dogs, snacks, Starbucks coffee, a DJ and other entertainment,” Maloney said. “We would love to have the whole community attend. You will not only raise funds, but you will become a part of a fun and supportive family-focused community.”

Registration and Resource Fair begin at 1 p.m. The walk starts at 3 p.m.

Those who have not signed up to walk can still help by visiting the organization's event page at www.walknowforautismspeaks.org/laurelhighlands to register or make a donation. People can also register to walk on the day of the event at Story Book Forest.

Linda Harkcom is a contributing writer.

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