April 6, 2011
POAC Walk- World Autism Awareness Day
“Elmo should go back to Sesame Street, Mommy” says my youngest child as he hunches down in his stroller, in part to avoid the wind whipping mercilessly around the stadium on this early April morning, and in part because Elmo is clearly lost, and therefore should leave immediately. Buster, the Lakewood BlueClaws mascot is here as well, but today Zach is not impressed, wants solely to traverse the gusts making it difficult for me and my mother to even gain entrance into the park. It’s World Autism Awareness Day, and not coincidentally the first of four walk-a-thons to be held around the state of New Jersey for POAC Autism Services, and it feels more like early March than spring. I am confident a breeze will not prevent anyone from participating in today’s event however, am excited that thousands of people from around the state will be donating and walking for a cause that perhaps has completely enveloped their lives, and their hearts.
I know it has done so with mine.
As we wheel Zachary through the gates I allow myself a moment of self-congratulation, because we’re here without Justin, and for the first time, perhaps ever, I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty. He would have been upset long before we reached our destination, confused by a trajectory of roads that lead him to an open building with nothing inside that would interest him, although there will be plenty here to captivate Zach. So, I’ve left my oldest with his father to attend this month’s autism movie (Jeff later reported almost nobody was there for this showing, I’m hopeful they all attended the walk). Although Zach has autism as well, the progress he has made has been so stunning I am confident he will one day be able to harness the anxieties and impulsivities that herald his brand of the disorder, in a way in which his older sibling will never be able to do. While I walk for all children on the spectrum, my primary motivation will always be for Justin. I’m sad he won’t be participating with us today, but I know he’s in a happier place.
Hopefully, Jeff is too.
As my little family of three wends its way through the crowds I spend a few moments taking it all in, the people ensconced in boldly colored t-shirts proclaiming their love for someone on the spectrum, the vendors and sponsors with their brochures and enticing crafts for little hands. I can only imagine how much planning it took to create this day, what combined effort and expertise went into an event of such magnitude. Every face I walk by seems cheerful, from those hawking autism “accessories”, to those preventing an unhappy child from a meltdown in the stands. There is a palpable aura of peace here, of parents stripping away the confines of an often harrowing existence, and simply reveling in a day, worldwide, about us.
And with all due respect, I kindly assert we deserve it.
In what seems no time at all Zach conquers three moon bounces, a playground, and a multitude of crafts, and it’s time for the exercise portion of the day to commence. Gary Weitzen, executive director of POAC, descends to the bottom of the stadium to address the crowds, and it seems as if even those children and adults who are vocally stimming quiet a little, are loathe to miss a word. He speaks of his gratitude to everyone who contributed both physically and financially today, to those who continue to underwrite an organization which is the largest provider of free autism trainings in the entire state. Reference was made to an impressive figure raised that almost hit the six figure mark, and may yet do so before the month is through. Gary cheerfully reminds the crowds of all POAC does for families who might otherwise have limited recourse to recreational activities, always for no cost. And after a stunning rendition of Christina Aguillera’s “Beautiful”, we are free to walk, to continue to take steps in the right direction to heal our children, our community, and our hearts.
I pause for a moment before we begin the sole loop my family will participate in today (a four-year-old has his limits with philanthropy), and as the sun slips over an awning that previously provided shade I am required to squint to take it all in, to view the masses moving in quiet solidarity around the circumference of the field. There are spaces of course, but as I remain still, I notice that slowly, steadily, they are being filled, as some teams lag behind, and others proceed at a quicker pace. I know if I stood here long enough I’d behold one great, cohesive circle of commitment, seamless in its synchronicity of volunteers, parents, children, teachers and therapists, all striving mightily to fill the gaps.
And filling the gaps is exactly what POAC has done so beautifully for well over a decade now, and I’m certain will continue to do so for many more to come.
Zach looks up at me impatiently, imploring me to return to the relative warmth of my car and take him home for lunch, and I concede to his desires. I take one last look back from the threshold of the stadium, and am rewarded by a thinning of space, of the blankness between what has been offered to our children, and what should be provided to them. I am so grateful this organization has stepped up to help erase those voids, so appreciative of all those who made it possible to be here today. Once again, we find ourselves a part of a community who cares. And I am reminded anew of what Gary so eloquently communicated to us all at the POAC Gala, mere weeks ago, in his welcoming speech.
We are family, indeed.