Runners stretched and pinned numbers to their shirts in the McClellan Park Medical Mall parking lot in preparation for the “Trot 4 Tots” 5,000-meter race.
The 5K benefited The Little Tree, a preschool in Jacksonville that helps children with autism and other disabilities.
Lisa Spurling, coordinator of resource development at The Little Tree, said the school needed to raise $10,000 to cover building costs for the summer months. The 191 race participants raised $3,820 Saturday towards the school’s goal.
Parents pay $400 a month for their children to be taught by The Little Tree’s master’s-level teachers and to work with behavior analysts. Spurling said similar programs in the state cost $1,750 a month, but The Little Tree wants to give autistic children an advantage without putting stress on families with the cost.
“The bottom line is these kids need it and somebody needs to step up and give it to them and not worry about whether it’s profitable or not,” Spurling said.
Patricia Murphy, regional director, said programs at the school are diminishing due to a possible grant loss from the Alabama Department of Education. Even though the school might be forced to close its doors, Murphy said she’s had several parents approach her recently asking to enroll their child, even if it’s only for three months.
“There’s just so many little ones that need a leg up before they start school. If they don’t get that they’ll be in special ed forever,” Murphy said.
Runner Kristi Young, of Munford, said she knows how important schools like The Little Tree are after she watched her nephew, Seth, struggle with autism.
Seth attended the program for autistic children at Saks Elementary School, Young said, and has made incredible strides since his diagnosis 11 years ago.
“He looks like anybody else. He has improved so much.” Young said.
Meanwhile, at another venue Saturday, autism research and assistance got a boost from families and friends wearing shirts emblazoned with team logos in the Walk for Autism held at the Saks High School football field. The event raised money for the Autism Society of Alabama.
Crystal Nelson described her 5-year-old daughter, Makynna, as “a typical, normal kid with a quirky side.”
Makynna was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form of autism, one year ago, Nelson said. Since the diagnosis, she said she strives for her daughter to be treated like any other child.
“She’s smart and she’s amazing. I just want people to know that,” Nelson said.
Brandy Nelson, Makynna’s aunt and team organizer, helped raise more than $1,800 for the ASA, which works to help find a cure and benefit other families affected by autism. Makynna’s team was 18 members strong and comprised family and friends.
“Anything we can do to support her that’s what we’re going to do,” Brandy said.
Jim Lewis, event organizer, said the two-mile walk around the Saks track is important for many local families, including his own. Lewis’s 14-year-old daughter, Morgan Thomas, was diagnosed with autism when she was four. Lewis credits the ASA as a support system for his family.
“Anything you need they’re standing behind you,” Lewis said.
Bill Pearson, ASA board member who was attending the Saks event, said the society was created for “support and advocacy.”
“The Autism Society is often the first line of communication when someone gets a diagnosis,” Pearson said.
ASA coordinates with therapists and doctors to create local networks for families to rely on, Pearson said.
He said annual walks held around the state are primary fundraisers for ASA, which operates on a $400,000 yearly budget.
With one in 88 children being diagnosed with some form of autism, Pearson said, it’s paramount to plan for those children becoming adults.
“There is very little funding for adults with autism,” Pearson said, something ASA hopes to change in the future. “One of the greatest fears of a parent of someone with autism is ‘what’s going to happen when I’m not here.’”
Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.