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Charity walk raises awareness, money, exceeding expectations

May 03, 2004|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - The relatives of Jarrett Keller, a Hagerstown child with autism, were not going to let rain stop them from participating in the Autism Awareness 5K Walk/Run at Hagerstown Community College on Sunday.

"We were going to do it in the rain if we needed to," Sharon Sprecher, Jarrett's grandmother, said after the walk.

That wasn't necessary; the rain did not begin until the walk was over.

Nine family members, including Jarrett, 4, and his parents, took part in the walk, Sprecher said. Most wore T-shirts bearing Jarrett's picture and the message "We love you, Jarrett."

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Recently, Jarrett surprised her by saying, "I love you," the most complex sentence he has expressed, she said.

"Every little sign is a hopeful thing," she said.

About 100 people participated in Sunday's walk.

Sprecher said it was helpful and meaningful to be able to spend time with other families of autistic children.

She liked the fact that the proceeds will help Washington County families of children with autism, she said. The money will be distributed by the Washington County Board of Education.

Although the family heard about the walk only in the last few weeks, it gathered $900 in pledges from friends and co-workers, a feat that impressed the event organizers.

The event was organized by Student Leadership Hagerstown, an organization of high school and college students administered by the Learning Community of Hagerstown Community College.

It was the first year for the group and the event. Members said they hope the service project will become an annual event.

Members said they chose an event centered on autism partially because of statistics showing an increased rate of children in Maryland born with autism.

The group hoped the event would raise both awareness of autism and about $3,000 to $5,000, said Vaughn Crowl, a psychology professor, who is one of the group's advisers. He estimated the event made about $6,000 to $7,000.

One walker, Renee Clark, raised $3,000.

Clark is part of Student Leadership Hagerstown and has a daughter, Courtney, 8, who is autistic.

"This has been a passionate event," she said.

She said she hopes it will raise awareness as the March of Dimes does for other medical problems.

She described raising a child with autism as "hard, but fulfilling." You learn a great deal about yourself in the process, she said.

Clark said she hopes events such as Sunday's will result in more families of people with autism having access to needed resources, preferably all in one place.

It makes more sense to provide services now to children with autism than to try to help them later in life, she said.

Cindy Hill, whose 4-year-old son, Luke, has autism, also walked. She praised the event.

Autism, a complex developmental disability, is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain and usually is evident in children by age 3, according to the Autism Society of America's Web site, www.autism-society.org.

Autism's symptoms and characteristics can surface in a wide range of combinations, from mild to severe. Two children with autism may act very differently from one another and may have a different set of skills, the Web site says.

Autism affects more than 10 times as many students in Maryland than it did about a decade ago, a number that's causing state and county school officials to take a closer look at how children who have the disability are taught, a Maryland State Department of Education official said in December 2003.

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