Autism event brings entire community together
Updated 12:51 pm, Monday, August 20, 2012
Every time Ron Rosenfeld sees the activity at the fitness trail at Waveny Park, tears come to his eyes.
Safe, sensory-friendly and fully accessible, the fitness facility has outdoor exercise equipment along a newly surfaced path that can be used by all individuals, regardless of ability or age. Completed in fall 2011, the trail was the idea of Rosenfeld and his wife, Tina, owners of the New Balance store on Main Street, and seen to fruition with the help of numerous people, including those who ran or walked in the annual All Out for Autism 5k.
The idea for the fitness park was simple. "Let's have a place that children with disabilities can use, the community can use, the senior citizens can use, because the whole idea is, get everybody together and realize that we are one community," Rosenfeld said. "We don't have to have separate places for a child with a disability.
"If you go up to that park on any given day -- and I sit back and my tears come to my eyes -- we have senior citizens there, a mom with two young children with disabilities, we have the high school athletes working out at the same time. All co-existing and that's what the whole thing is about."
Judi Anders, the president of SPED*NET, a race sponsor, said the purpose of the fitness path, which is geared toward people age 14 and older, was to spread awareness and to foster inclusiveness. After the idea was first broached, she said, "We didn't know where it would take us."
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Now, she said, users -- young or old, disabled or not -- are "side by side -- all together."
All Out for Autism, now in its fourth year, also was the creation of the Rosenfelds to bring awareness to autism, which affects one in every 88 children according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to raise money for special-needs programs. In the first three years, $70,000 was raised, Rosenfeld said. This year's goal is $20,000 with the proceeds going to the New Canaan YMCA for its special-needs programs. Rosenfeld has donated $5,000 and Carolynn Kaufman, the director of special needs programming at the Y, has secured another $5,000, he said.
This year's run/walk will take place at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24. It begins and ends at the New Balance store at 128 Main St., and goes through downtown New Canaan. A quarter-mile kids' race will take place at 6:15 p.m. Prior to the start of the 5k, a Zumba class will be offered to warm up the participants. Awards and other festivities will take place following the race.
Anders said the 5k is a community-wide event with many sports stores, restaurants and other retailers participating and donating goods and money.
With the money from the 5k, Kaufman said, the Y is looking to offer "family fun nights" and other special events. "I think we are going to leave it to the parents to sort of direct how they would like to see the programming and anything new to offer," she said. The Y already offers numerous programs for children and young adults with special needs, but Kaufman said the Y wants to address the desires of the middle and high school-age kids. Parents would like to see more after-school activities for their kids, she said.
The Y has an active and growing enrollment in its special-needs programs, Kaufman said. "The parents are really thrilled to have the Y opening its doors and to try to make it as successful as we can for everybody to join our programs. I think the parents are very grateful to have a place in the community where their kids can come. And we try really hard to listen to where the needs are," she said.
All programs at the Y are inclusive and aides are assigned to participants where necessary, the funding for which is provided through the annual support campaign.
Raising money for charity and building awareness are nothing new to Rosenfeld, who has been in the athletic footwear industry for 35 years and formerly owned Athlete's Foot stores. When he worked in Stamford, he said, he was involved in helping Paralympians.
Shortly after opening the New Balance store six years ago, Rosenfeld and his staff started to see mothers going into the shop and buying two or three pairs of footwear, then exchanging them for different sizes. Curious, Rosenfeld inquired and was told that parents are sometimes afraid to bring their autistic children into retail shops because of their sometimes unpredictable behavior, which might upset retailers.
Rosenfeld's response was, " `No, no, no, no. You bring your children in, we will deal with it, we will help you out.' "
So SPED*NET was approached and the Rosenfelds asked the organization, " `What can we do?' " especially after they learned that 500 kids in the New Canaan school system have an individual education plan because they have a learning or intellectual disability or autism.
With his experience organizing road races, the 5k was born. In the first year, 300 people participated, and by the third year, 550. Rosenfeld expects participation to grow each year, and with it, money.
He gets a lot of satisfaction from what's been accomplished so far. "I believe if you are a retail establishment in a community, you have an obligation to be involved with the community so you get to know the community. ... I like people. I like doing things for people."
And Rosenfeld already knows what the objective will be for the fifth annual race in 2013 -- a boundless playground at the fitness path for the younger kids.
"I get up in the morning and I get excited and that's fun. I love this community. They are educated and they understand and they really appreciate when a retailer gives back," he said.
Registration can be done online at www.bazusports.com or at New Balance New Canaan. The fee is $15 before Aug. 20, $20 between Aug. 20 and 23 and $25 the day of the race. For information, visit www.alloutforautism.com or call 203-801-0050.