Light it up blue!
By John Hummer
Jackson area families with children that have some form of autism, as well as many friends and members of the public came out strong on a cold, blustery evening at Horace Blackman Park Monday to create awareness and build additional support for those affected by the disorder.
The event, hosted by the Jackson Autism Support Network, was called Light It Up Blue Jackson. Participants joined with others around the world in similar “Light It Up Blue” events to celebrate the 11th annual World Autism Awareness Day and kick off Autism Awareness Month.
Hundreds of thousands of landmarks, buildings, homes, and communities around the world were lit up blue in recognition of people living with autism. In Jackson, the County Tower Building was lit up blue at dusk along with blue lights on every light pole in the city that will stay lit through the month of April.
Jackson mayor Derek Dobies was on hand to show his and the city’s support for the cause. At the city’s last meeting, the Jackson City Council passed a resolution recognizing April as Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month.
“Events like this really further that goal,” he said. “It helps people with autism to be more accepted in society and improve their ability to integrate with their community as well.”
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by troubles with social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. Parents usually notice signs in the first two or three years of their child’s life. These signs often develop gradually, though some children with autism reach their developmental milestones at a normal pace and then worsen. Autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
A biodegradable balloon launch at dusk was the high point of the event as children, family, and friends released hundreds of blue balloons in a symbolic gesture of support for those with autism. The event also included games for kids, a cake walk, drawings for several prizes which were donated by area businesses, music, a photo booth, vendors that have services that support children with autism, and other JASN resources. Clair Brown, Miss Jackson County Teen USA, was also on hand to support the cause.
Shelly Lewis, president of JASN who has two sons with autism, was pleased with the show of support at the event and for autism in general.
“We have a lot of community support this year – more than we’ve ever had,” she said. “We’re very blessed.”
Lewis noted that the event served to promote another coming event to support JASN. The musical Annie will be performed for the public at the Michigan Theatre in Jackson April 20-22. She added that the Junkyard Dog restaurant in Jackson will have a fundraiser on April 21 where a portion of every sale will go to JASN.
“Most of the people involved with [Annie] have a family member that has autism,” she said.
Lisa Monk, a third-grade teacher at Napoleon’s Ezra Eby Elementary, whose daughter Emily will play Annie, has a son with autism. She is very involved with JASN.
“I don’t know how anybody could get through life without having a network of parents who have children with autism,” she said. “I don’t know how I would have made it. It’s like a lifeline. I’m glad we’re bringing so much awareness. It’s a lot easier to conquer when you have a network.”
Lewis said one of her and JASN’s biggest passions is to help families get the services and resources they need, noting that one of her sons requires 30 hours of therapy a week.
“It’s a full-time job,” she said. “Our families struggle to put their kids through school and to get the therapies they desperately need to help them get through just a day. It’s tiring. You deal with a lot of behaviors and trying to understand what our kids are trying to say.”
Lewis said there are quite a few therapy centers in the Jackson area that are growing and helping kids with autism.
“There are a lot of great things happening. The community has really gotten behind our families.”
The Jennings family of Jackson came to the event. Peggy Jennings’ 7-year-old daughter, Amelia, is on the autism spectrum. She attends the Lyle Torrant Center School.
“She’s pretty unique – she has traits that are similar to autism,” Jennings said of her daughter. “The [autism] spectrum is really unique because each child is different, and it will affect each child differently. They are unique individuals with unique challenges.
“This is great because everybody here understands the kids,” she said of the event. “It’s very family friendly, very kid friendly, and it’s good to bring the awareness. And Amelia is having fun, and that’s all that matters.”
Maggie Rodriguez, a board member of JASN for two years, has an 8-year-old son, Gavin, with autism. She met Lewis and learned about JASN
“I was struggling to understand what autism was,” she said. “Meeting her and being part of the meetings was very helpful. She had a lot of resources and advice and put me in touch with everyone to get Gavin the best help, therapy, and places to go for kids with autism. It’s been life-changing to have the support of people who understand what it is to have a kid who struggles to cope with society and normal daily activities. I’m proud to be a board member to help other friends so they don’t feel alone.”
Light It Up Blue Jackson also served as the kick-off for Around the Park for Autism 5k run/walk on Saturday, May 12, JASN’s largest fundraiser. To register for the race or seek volunteer opportunities, visit runsignup.com/Race/MI/Jackson/AroundtheParkforAutism5K.
The Jackson Autism Support Network meets the second Tuesday of every month from 6 to 8 p.m. at the organization’s office at 3015 Wildwood Ave., Jackson. Childcare is provided.
For more information on JASN, contact Shelly Lewis at 517-392-3093 or email email@example.com. The group’s website is jasn-mi.org.