This post is by Elizabeth Lee, Development Associate at Autism Speaks since April 2011.
Monica Reiss served as Autism Speaks’ Director of Corporate and Foundation Giving, beyond that she was a dear friend and ray of light to all who had the privilege to meet her. Her job was focused on writing grant proposals, focused on securing grants toward our many program areas here at Autism Speaks. When I started working in the development department alongside Monica back in 2011, it was clear from the get-go she was focused and diligent; enjoying her packed lunches at her desk while feverishly typing away. As a curious newcomer, I remember asking Monica what she liked about working here at Autism Speaks. She swiveled her chair, smiled and replied, “I really just love being around such passionate people. It makes me happy knowing my job; our jobs have an impact on the lives of so many.” Little did she know, she was among the “passionate people” she spoke so fondly of and I was lucky enough to have had as a cube-mate. Monica did not have a direct connection to the cause but as I soon discovered, she wrapped her arms around many causes due to the openness of her heart and her willingness to support those in need. Monica and I worked very closely together in the development department here at Autism Speaks. In between our rigorous work schedule we’d often sit back and chat about work, friends and family, to which she always had some gardening factoid, proud story of her son or daughter, always paired with an unrelenting smile or heartwarming chuckle. One thing we both shared was our love for ‘putting together the puzzle.’ In the development sense it was about finding supporters for our mission. From researching prospects, to identifying donors and pairing them with program interests, all with the purpose of supporting the needs of the autism community our organization served. What better way to spend your day?
In November 2011, Monica was sadly taken away from us in a tragic car accident on her way home from work. I distinctly recall rushing out that evening to catch my train with a “See you tomorrow Monica!” only to return the next day to hear the horrific news. No words can begin to describe the absolute disbelief we all shared that day. The day of her funeral, in place of tears we all sat and listened to the stories of heart, courage, laughter, and the uplifting spirit that was Monica Reiss. The room was filled, with folks having to stand along the wall. Whether you knew her for a moment or years, the feeling was the same; she had a spirit that could lift you up, and a laugh that filled the room with warmth and kindness. Later that month, Autism Speaks was alerted by QBE of Americas that we would be the recipient of a $75,000 grant in support of our Family Services Employment Tool Kit. This was one of the last grant proposals Monica had written before her passing. That day we all agreed Monica was smiling down on us.
A little over a year later, I sit here reflecting on some heartwarming news; the Fanwood Library in New Jersey recently unveiled the Monica Reiss Autism Resources Collection. The Fanwood Memorial Library received contributions in Monica’s memory which allowed them to continue their efforts in a program focused on inclusion, and awareness they call Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected which was developed in collaboration with the Scotch Plains Public Library (librariesandautism.org). The contributions made in her name, provided funding for a significant increase in the number of autism related resources available. The Monica Reiss Autism Resources Collection will be a permanent resource available to assist those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and their families. Even in her passing the passion she had for helping others continues to impact families. Monica remains sorely missed by all here at Autism Speaks, but her legacy remains, both spiritually and physically. The plant on her desk that she so carefully tended to, still lives strong and will forever represent the unwavering spirit of kindness, and strength that Monica had during here time here with us. We miss you Monica. You and your smile.
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.