Texas Tech’s Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research hosted the ninth annual Walk for Autism Awareness on Sunday, gathering a crowd of more than 3,000 supporters.
The purpose of the walk was to raise support and gather donations for awareness and research of what is one of the most quickly growing disabilities in the nation, said Janice Magness, the director of the Burkhart Center’s transitioning academy.
New numbers from the Center for Disease Control report one in 50 people will be born with autism, she said.
“That certainly makes it the fastest growing developmental disability,” Magness said, “certainly in the United States, if not the world.”
Groups and families from the Tech and Lubbock community and as far as New Mexico came to show their support for the Burkhart Center during national Autism Awareness Month, walking from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. around the Jones AT&T Stadium football field, she said.
This is the ninth year the center has sponsored the walk, Magness said, and the fourth year the walk has been hosted in the stadium.
Last year the walk attracted about 3,000 people, she said, but this year the center met and exceeded that number.
Information booths were set up around the sidelines to help educate participants on what autism is and what can be done to support family and community members affected by it. There also were activities for children, including a balloon animal station and three bounce houses.
One participant, Robin Ochermann, a special education teacher in Shallowater, said she walked to show her love for her students.
“I’m actually a special education teacher,” she said, “and I’ve been teaching for 25 years, so I’ve got a lot of kids that I’m walking for, a lot of families that I’m walking for.”
Ochermann said it was her first time walking, and she was excited to see former students and how far they have progressed.
“I think it’s just important to put out a sense of community and support,” she said, “and it is a good time to catch up with friends that you’ve made in the past.”
South Plains College also was present at the walk, represented by the Associate of Arts and Teaching Program, said Annette Smith, coordination of the college program.
Smith brought 40 to 50 students with her, she said, and some of their children have autism.
“This is a great cause,” she said. “Autism is a really hard thing for parents to manage, and it’s hard on the children, and they need a lot of money to do research and find help for both the children and the parents, and the children, especially.”
Smith said she and her group also walked to support her students who attend the College of Education, which is connected to the Burkhart Center.
Businesses, such as Best Buy, also took part in the walk, said Samrie Robinson, a representative for the store and a member of Team Jessie.
“We’re waking to raise awareness for the autism disability,” she said. “We’re from Best Buy, so if 10 of us volunteer then we can donate $1,000 to the donation. And then I’m personally walking because my manager from my other job, her grandson is autistic.”
The walk is a good resource for a community where autism issues may not be visible, Robinson said.
“It means to me just showing support to the disability and just being there for everyone,” she said. “It’s not a highly recognized disability from what I’ve seen. A lot of people are unaware of what it really means and what autistic is.”
The walk is not the only thing the center has done during Autism Awareness month though, Magness said. Businesses across the community have lent their support, including Dillard’s, which hosted a style show for children with autism. Restaurants also have sponsored days out of the month, donating a portion of each day’s proceeds to the Burkhart Center.
The money raised from the walk and past events are going to the new center being built on the Tech campus, she said.
“We are in the process of completing a building just for the center that will open in September or October of this year,” Magness said. “And so, a lot of the money is going to programming to help start a preschool, to enlarge the transitioning academy and to start a behavioral clinic.”
She said she encourages students to come out and support events such as these during the remainder of April and for next year, not only to support the community, but also to support fellow Tech students.
“I think it’s a great thing for Tech students to get involved,” Magness said. “Believe it or not, many Tech students come and volunteer in our center, and a lot of them have nieces, nephews and even siblings with autism. So many people are affected by autism now that it’s just something that I think is here to stay until we find a cause, and at this time there is no cure.”