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Autism Speaks Leadership Conference Report – West Region

This post is by Haylie L. Miller, Ph.D. She is the 2012 Dallas/Fort Worth Walk Chair, 2013 Blue Tie Ball Chair, and Incoming Leadership Council Chair.

This year, I had the privilege of attending the Autism Speaks Leadership Conference in Chicago. When I attended the conference for the first time last year, I was relatively new to Autism Speaks in terms of leadership-level involvement, and I had no idea what to expect. I learned a lot (an overwhelming amount, to tell the truth!) in 3 days, and I came back to Dallas/Fort Worth invigorated and motivated by what I heard. This year, having taken on the responsibility of chairing our local Walk and our inaugural gala event, I had a much more specific set of goals and questions when I arrived. Just as I expected, it was an action-packed and informative weekend!

I was excited to meet Kerry and Dan Schlaack at the Thursday evening cocktail reception, and we had a great discussion about their extremely successful Oscar Party event in Chicago. One of the best things about the conference is the opportunity to trade ideas with other volunteers, brainstorm together, and take away specific ideas that will work in your market. I quickly realized that every city deals with different challenges: some are saturated with charity galas, and some have no market for a formal event at all. Between individual conversations and structured Q&A sessions, I can’t tell you how many creative ways committees have overcome these challenges. Hearing these “work-arounds” made me realize that success is truly in the hands of our local volunteers.

Friday and Saturday were filled with informative presentations. They ranged from how to correctly use the Autism Speaks logo and complimentary colors/fonts (Thanks, Bill Shea! I’m a design nerd, too!) to a really encouraging science update from Dr. Geri Dawson. As a researcher, I am always excited to learn what real-world solutions are made possible by Autism Speaks funding, so Dr. Dawson’s talk was one of my favorite moments. I was also glad to hear from Autism Speaks’ new president, Liz Feld, who really seems to understand the strengths and challenges of the organization. She emphasized the need for enhanced communication between national and local offices, and between volunteers and staff, which will foster greater success. “One team, one goal!” was the Friday evening, a room full of volunteers saw me nearly burst with surprise and delight as Dallas/Fort Worth was honored for having the top Year Over Year Increase in Tier 3 markets. I promised board member Artie Kempner that we would be in Tier 2 for 2012, and I think we are well-equipped to meet that goal, thanks to all of the great tools we were given over the weekend.

By the time I packed my bags on Saturday, I had pages and pages of notes, and my head was swimming with ideas to implement in Dallas/Fort Worth. We are planning to have a Beef & Beer dinner (inspired by a Philadelphia volunteer), we feel better equipped to build a strong base of volunteer leaders, we intend to implement corporate lunch ‘n’ learns, and we have a better idea of how to successfully execute our gala this coming April. I’m so thankful that three of our newer volunteers (Dawn, Eric, and Sonia) were able to be there, because I think they were equally inspired by the experience. The leadership conference is an amazing way to refresh volunteer and staff enthusiasm each year, and I am so grateful to have been a part of such a wonderful weekend!