The Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Awareness hosted its annual Walk for Autism Awareness from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 28, at the John B. Walker Soccer Complex.
Jere Lynn Burkhart, a founder of the Burkhart Center, said the program started because of her grandson.
“(Burkhart and her husband) are the reason it started because we have raised an autistic grandson," she said. "We got him when he was two years old and he is now 34."
After moving to Lubbock and talking to members of the College of Special Education, Burkhart and her husband agreed to help start a program for autistic kids. This program was created to help educate teachers and anybody else who works with an autistic child, she said.
“We started in the College of Special Education with only two rooms, and that’s where we stayed until we grew so much that we started the transition program,” she said.
The Burkhart Transition Academy is where students start from high school and can attend until they are 30 years old, she said.
Students continue their education and learn how to have a job, she said. They are taught social skills, how to be independent and take care of themselves if they can do that.
“Most of our students now are on the high end of the spectrum, which is Asperger’s, and they’re all being trained for jobs,” Burkhart said.
One side of the transition program is for older students, and the other side is from birth through high school, she said.
There are physical, occupational and speech therapists who work with children there on a daily basis, she said.
“We’re covering everything now," she said. "We had the building built about 10 years ago, and it has grown immensely.”
The Burkhart Center puts on seminars and hosts training programs for teachers and parents to learn how to treat an autistic child, Burkhart said.
Wes Dotson, the director of the Burkhart Center, said the annual walk is a time for people to come together.
“Our annual Walk for Autism Awareness is our yearly opportunity for the families, community members and professionals who are impacted by autism to come together and share time to meet our providers, people who are here for them and also to enjoy the fellowship of being a part of this amazing community,” he said.
Families, teams and providers can register and it is free, he said. It is not a fundraiser and there is no cost. It is an event for people to celebrate and be a part of the community.
There are a number of community providers who give many services and activities for folks with autism in their families, he said, such as the Education Services Center, public schools and individual families.
“One of our favorite parts of the walk is all of the different groups who have put their teams together to support an individual on the spectrum or the community, and so they all make shirts together,” Dotson said.
The center could not do this without volunteers, he said. Sponsors and partners, such as the Boy Scouts in Lubbock, do an enormous amount of work for the center, setting up and taking down everything.
All the activities and games at the event are run by volunteers who have come out to give back to the community, Dotson said.
Nicole Espinoza, a teacher at Lubbock Cooper, has an eighth grader named Mary Berry in her class. Berry's whole team, family, friends and other kids from different schools were present at the event.
“At our school, Mary came in as a sixth grader, and by the first week of school, everybody knew who she was," she said. "She was our mascot, a mentor in my classroom and she has great things in her future.”
Charlie Berry, Mary’s father, said back when the Burkhart family had their grandson, there was not any help for their family. There was no place to go, so the fact that there is something like the Burkhart Center in Lubbock is huge, he said.
As a Tech alumnus, to have that and special Olympics being involved with Tech and having all of the support is really cool, he said.
“We are walking today, and this walk helps raise money for the Burkhart Center where Mary goes every summer for camp,” he said.
Burkhart loves when families attend the event, she said.
“I love it when they come with their autistic child, and their entire group of supporters," Burkhart said. "Autism has been my life now for the last 34 years, and we’ve just been so blessed.”