Wednesday, Sep 17, 2014
Out and about

Autism Awareness Fest continues to grow in third year


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What started as a high school project has turned into an annual event to raise money for autism.

The Autism Awareness Fest, which will spread across Springstead High School’s track field on Saturday, began three years ago as a project for a Springstead High School junior. Danish Hasan, now a freshman at the University of South Florida, crafted the idea to fulfill his IB requirements for graduation.

Hasan, who has no direct link to autism, was surprised when friends of his family mentioned their struggles to get services in Hernando County for their autistic child. He did some research, even attended a convention in Orlando for autism, and learned the realities were dismal at best.

He realized that Hernando County was significantly lagging behind other counties despite a large number of diagnosed cases, more than 600, on the autism spectrum. So he got busy laying the groundwork for an event he hoped would serve two necessary purposes; to educate the community about autism and to assist families with resources.

The Autism Awareness Fest debuted in April 2012. It became a cohesive effort, combining local business vendors, educators, therapists, pediatricians and more who wanted to reach out and assist those who were touched by autism.

Springstead High School students, including Hasan’s classmates, Aladdin Hiba and Harsh Patil, helped Hasan pull everything together. Springstead’s student clubs sold snacks and drinks and crafted games and other activities to keep the kids occupied.

They raised about $2,000 that first year, Hasan said.

The event taught Hasan that more was needed if they hoped to ground an annual festival in the community. So he continued his mission through his senior year at Springstead, along with Hiba and Patil, and brought the Autism Awareness Fest to Springstead High School for a second year.

Sponsors proved more difficult to obtain but the festival itself was even larger. More activities were added, which spread further into the track field, and included sensory games for children, miniature horses for interaction and photo opportunities.

More people attended, raising funds to help local children on the spectrum go to special summer camps while educating the community about a disorder that affects so many.

For 2014, Hasan eased up on the controls a bit, pitching the idea to Springstead’s Junior class. He and Hiba and Patil, now Freshmen at USF, returned to help coordinate the event.

“We came back to do this because we felt it was our obligation,” Hasan said.

The three helped the junior class find vendors, coordinate activities and obtain sponsorships.

“They are a really creative group,” Hasan said, confident the new leaders were capable of taking over the event completely.

The vendor list includes Sacred Heart Early Childhood Center, All Aboard Academy, Wiggle Worms School, Pasco County Public Library, Hernando County Public Library, Boys and Girls Clubs, Solid Steps Learning, and Springstead High School Clubs.

Hasan’s vision from the beginning was to build a foundation that could sustain each year, growing in scope and magnitude, and bringing awareness and funding to children who need it.

“It’s always been about taking this event to the point where we had to let it go,” Hasan said. His hope was that the community would join forces and perhaps initiate an organization that, one day, might become a model for other counties to mimic.

But an event of such importance needs the efforts of everyone, whether directly affected by autism or indirectly as a support to those who suffer.

While it’s difficult to let go of something he has nurtured for three years, Hasan always intended that his project would grow into a much bigger legacy, organized by a growing interest and supported by local leaders.

Jennifer Lamke of C.A.U.S.E., a local support organization for children and families on the spectrum, said money received from the festival helps send children with autism to summer camps.

But the event also opens windows to services, highlights special therapies available and links families to resources they might not otherwise uncover.

Hasan’s mission the first year was to reach the autism community and open windows to support. Last year he hoped to increase awareness for everyone.

This year, he hopes drive home the message that anyone, even a group of young high school students, has the power to illicit change.

The free event will run from 12 to 3 p.m. at Springstead High School. For more information including vendor opportunities or to make a donation, contact Arjun Malhotra or email autismfest.cause@yahoo.com.

Email Hernando Today correspondent Kim Dame at damewrites@yahoo.com.

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