Walk Now for Autism Speaks

Walk Now for Autism Speaks

By Kathryn M. D’Imperio

April is Autism Awareness month, reminding us to do what we can to support those affected by autism. Autism Speaks is the leading autism science and advocacy organization that focuses on funding research to learn more about the causes, prevention and treatments for autism. The organization also works to raise awareness of autism spectrum disorders while advocating for needs of those with autism as well as their families. A team of dedicated volunteers works together to organize the Walk Now for Autism Speaks Lehigh Valley event. Yvonne Hensinger leads the committee, and many committee members have assisted with the walk for numerous years, holding different
lead roles.

Walking for a cause brings together thousands for a common goal, working as a team to make a real difference. This year on the evening of April 25th, the 8th Annual Lehigh Valley Walk Now for Autism Speaks event kicks off to help a great cause and inspire some fun for the many participants doing their part.

“We are dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention and treatments for autism: to raise public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families and society; and to bring hope to all who deal with the hardships of this disorder,” says Walk & Events Director Melissa Zavorksi. “We are committed to raising funds necessary to support these goals.”

The Lehigh Valley walk first came to exist shortly after the Barbarics family of Alburtis participated in Philadelphia’s first Walk Now for Autism event at the Philadelphia Zoo. After learning their young son Blake had autism, Karen and Bill Barbarics took him to the walk in Philly. “It was the one day we needed,” says Karen Barbaric. “We took our son there, and he fit in. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel alone.”

When Blake’s parents discovered no walk for autism currently existed in the Lehigh Valley, Karen Barbaric contacted the national organization Autism Speaks about starting one.

“I found out it was a grass-roots effort,” she says. “It takes a community to build a walk.”

Inspired, she found 10 committed people and started the walk in the Valley.  Karen continues to be involved in the walk year after year through her team “Blake and Jack
Strike Back.”

“At an Autism Speaks walk, everyone is accepted,” says Zavorksi, who enjoys her involvement in directing the walks. “Some of our families are challenged with doing simple tasks, such as taking their child to dinner or to a play date. At our walk, everything and anything goes. We do our best to accommodate families by offering plenty of activities with little wait time and also some quiet areas if their children should need some down time. We have a resource fair where parents can meet with local service providers to gain information as well.”

The event has grown in leaps and bounds since the first one eight years ago. Last year’s event saw 10,000 walkers and this year’s walk is expected to be even bigger.

“Every year we have had more and more walkers attend our walk,” says Zavorksi. “We have moved it to Dorney Park to better accommodate our teams. This year we are hosting our first-ever evening walk, which will feature a staggered walk start to allow all teams to choose their walking time.”

The Autism Speaks organization, its volunteers and fundraising participants for the walk have done tremendous work in raising funding for their cause. Last year, they raised nearly half a million dollars in the Lehigh Valley alone. Additionally, Autism Speaks has funded the Autism Treatment Network at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) as well as many Baker Summer grants in the area thanks to these funds.

The top sponsor for 2014’s Walk Now for Autism Speaks event is Air Products. The organization also thanks Vinart Dealerships (Lehigh Valley Acura, Honda, Hyundai), Josh Early Candies and Valley Preferred for their continued support, plus everyone who has contributed funding and time in support of the cause.

“Being a walk director for Autism Speaks allows me to work directly with families impacted by our mission,” Zavorski says. “I am able to celebrate their children’s achievements with them and listen to the families when the times are tough. So many of our families possess strength, warmth and compassion for life. When you work for Autism Speaks, you don’t have a job, you have a calling.”

The 8th Annual Lehigh Valley Walk Now for Autism Speaks event takes place Friday, April 25 at Dorney Park rain or shine. Registration and the resource fair take place from 5 to 8 p.m. and the event features a staggered start this year, so participants will be arriving between 5:30 and 8 p.m. For more information, please see walknowforautismspeaks.org/Lehighvalley and autismspeaks.org.


Families in the United States are learning of a child having an autism spectrum disorder at an alarming rate of one new diagnosis every 11 minutes. Each child’s diagnosis can mean something different for the family, varying from one to the next according to where their child falls on the spectrum. The most common difficulties faced by those with some degree of autism include trouble with social interaction, difficulty with communication, some level of intellectual disability, attention difficulties, trouble with motor coordination, and repetitive behaviors. Health issues may also be present. Some kids impacted by autism may be very high functioning with few, if any, pronounced issues, and in fact, some with autism spectrum disorder may have exceptional talents in math, art, music and visual skills. Others may need constant care and assistance. This serious developmental disorder continues its rapid growth in our country, requiring greater efforts to bring new research and funding into the picture.


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