Autism Speaks U successfully hosts sixth annual 3k walk/5k run

By Kristin LaFratta

Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian
Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian

The sun shone brightly Sunday morning for the 1,000-plus people gathered in the center of Amherst at Kendrick Park for the sixth annual Autism Speaks U 3k walk and 5k run. Despite small protests, the event raised over $50,000 for Autism Speaks U, a national organization that sponsors research and spreads awareness of autism through outreach events.

The event, organized by the UMass chapter’s 12-person executive board, was a success. The turnout nearly doubled from last year, according to event planning co-vice president Sara Geiger.

Placing first in the 5k run was Evan Lefebvre of Chelmsford, with a time of 18:36. Katharyn Cooney of Chelmsford was the first female to pass the finish line with a time of 20:26. Prizes were awarded to the top three male and female finishers as well as the top fundraisers.

Local sponsors for the event included UMass Dining, Florence Savings Bank, Greenfield Savings Bank and Domino’s. Tents for popular brands such as Runa, Coffee-mate and Nesquik stood alongside a moon bounce and “Kid’s Korner,” where cookie decorating, face painting and sand art took place for children and fraternity brothers alike. Pi Kappa Alpha member Graham Steele-Perkins dropped by the Kid’s Korner to get his fraternity’s letters painted on his face.

“I think it’s great as a fraternity we can support this great cause and do good things for the community,” Steele-Perkins said.

Scheduled as a mandatory event for Greek Week, the walk included almost 800 participants from fraternities and sororities. UMass fraternities Alpha Epsilon Pi and Sigma Delta Tau initiated the event six years ago, where it started as a small outing on the campus center lawn.

The sixth annual walk and run had the largest turnout and fundraising the chapter has seen. Throughout the day, music flooded the park with a live DJ and a guest performance by the university’s popular a cappella group the Vocal Suspects, though not everyone at the park took part in the festivities.

Protestors stood at the race’s starting line, advocating against the Autism Speaks organization by telling people that it does not fully represent autistic individuals and acts as a service trying to “cure” a people who are not sick or broken. They held signs that said, “Autism Speaks Hurts Us” and “Autism is Not the Enemy.”

“It tries to talk over me and people like me,” said Rebecca Berliner, an autistic student at Holyoke Community College. “Things like the puzzle piece logo are really harmful because they say that autistic people are a piece of a puzzle that need to be fitted in and figured out instead of treated as valid in their own right.”

Her sister Sara Berliner, a freshman student at Hampshire College, added that Autism Speaks practices eugenics by trying to “erase autistic people and ignore their needs.” She added that a few people told her sister, a highly functioning autistic college student, that she was not autistic.

Sophomore and vice president of the UMass Autism Speaks chapter Sian Wynter said that the funds raised are redistributed to support families and individuals with autism, which includes conducting research to help autistic individuals acclimate to the community and handle certain situations – the kind of research a mother of an autistic 3-year-old finds helpful.

“They provide lots of resources online, kits that we can go to help us find places to help our children. They just bring you a community,” said local resident Monica Donnelly, mother of a 3-year-old autistic boy and advocate for Autism Speaks. “I think it’s wonderful that they’re out supporting the community and trying to bring more awareness so people are more aware of autism and the resources they have for our families.”

Senior Daniel Harpaz, UMass Autism Speaks U co-president and conclave chair for Alpha Epsilon Pi, said that the issues voiced by the protestors are ones that the club addresses and discusses.

“We don’t push views one way or another,” he said. “It’s an open floor and that’s how we like to keep it at UMass Amherst Autism Speaks U chapter.” In only its second year as a registered student organization, Harpaz said he is excited about the successes of the UMass Autism Speaks U chapter and what it will do in the future.

Kristin LaFratta can be reached at [email protected]