Posted by: Autism Speaks | August 4, 2010

2010 St. Louis Walk Now for Autism Speaks Kickoff

Submitted by Tricia Merkel, St. Louis Walk Chair and the team captain of Autism Avengers.

Tricia Merkel speaking at the 2010 St. Louis Kickoff

My name is Tricia Merkel and what some of you might not know about me is that I do not have a child with autism.  My journey with Autism Speaks started about five years ago when I was in a relationship with someone who had a child.  Sometimes I would notice behaviors in this child that were just not what I was use to seeing as an early childhood educator.  He would run up and down the long hallway of our apartment flapping his hands and seemed like he could do this forever and never, ever run out of energy even at two o’clock in the morning.  He could recite every movie line from Toy Story and when he would get in trouble he use to quote his favorite Disney movie and I would turn into the evil Zurg.  At the time I had no idea what was going on but I knew that I had to find out, so I went to the University of Google and typed in all of the behaviors that I was noticing and one of the first things to pop up was Autism.  Now five years ago I had only heard of autism; I really didn’t know anything about it much less have any training on it. I began to research deeper for places in St. Louis that could prove to be a good resource to check out and I came across information on the 2005 Kickoff Celebration and decided that I was going to attend this event.  I remember walking into the room and feeling the excited energy in the air and you couldn’t help but get sucked in. I left the event with a team captain packet and a mind racing with ideas on how I could form a team, raise money, and teach all of my co-workers and friends about what I had learned there that day.  On the car ride back to work I came up with the Autism Avengers as my team name and as soon as I set foot back in the door hung up my team poster and started recruiting walkers for my team. 

My first year I didn’t know what to expect and couldn’t have prepared for it if I tried. I was in awe when I stepped on that parking lot and made my way over to the registration tent to show up for my first volunteer opportunity with the organization.   Everyone was so welcoming and happy to be there that when I finished and left the tent to go find my team I was walking on a cloud of air.  I remember stopping to take in all the details, fun, excitement, compassion, awareness, and love knowing that I had to be more involved.  In 2006 I joined the Walk planning committee and meet many wonderful people who I am glad to call my friends today. 

As my life changed so did my introduction at committee meetings.  I went from “Hi, I’m Tricia and my significant other has a child with autism”  to “Hi, I’m Tricia and I have friends who have children with autism”.   As I took on more responsibility helping to plan the Walk I also made it my mission to help inform my co-workers about autism.  Most of them at that time could tell you they had heard of autism but could not point out red flags.  So I began my campaign of information boards, team letters, fact sheets, and showing anyone who stepped into my classroom the Walk video from the previous year with a plea of “Will you Walk with us this Year?”.  I became the autism girl who had an awareness shirt for everyday of the week and why not; early intervention is key, right?  Now I am happy to say that over 40 teachers at the Monsanto Child Development Center know what autism is, know the signs, know the facts, and know where to find resources to help families and well as themselves. 

Every year on the second Saturday of October I get to experience a magical day that never loses the excitement, passion, love, hope, or awareness that it had the year before and I am sure to do two things on that day: laugh and cry.  So ask me why I walk and this is what I will tell anyone who is willing to listen.

I walk because I am an early childhood educator and early intervention is key; I walk because 5 years ago I had only heard of autism; I walk because while some children get to play with Barbie’s and toy trucks some are spending sometimes 40 hours of their weeks in therapy; I walk because in 5 years the incidence rate in autism has gone from 1 in 166 to now 1 in 110; I walk because my center can care for 160 children–how many will we see that have autism?; I walk because I feel like I need to educate other early childhood educators; I walk because every year I have 20 new 4 and 5 year olds who may not totally understand what autism is but they know what acceptance means; I walk because along with those kids come approximately 40 parents that I can also educate; I walk because parents need a friend to listen, cry and rejoice about the accomplishments; I walk because advocacy is important; I walk so one day no parent will have to hear the words  your child has autism; I walk because more research needs to be done; I walk because one day I want the St. Louis arch to “light it up Blue”; I walk because just this week I was able to give a newly diagnosed parent the 1-888-AUTISM-2 number; I walk because since I have been with the organization approximately 131,400 children have been diagnosed with autism; and I walk because if you have a loved one with autism please stand up: I walk for your families.

For more information about the Walk, please visit us at www.walknowforautismspeaks.org/stlouis.

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