Gratitude and a Challenge

Thursday, January 2, 2014 View Comments Autism Speaks

This post is by Lou Melgarejo, a married father of three whose eldest daughter Bianca has autism. In 2011 he started Lou’s Land, a blog from an Autism Dad’s perspective. A television director by trade, Lou used what he knew to create the autism awareness video “Fixing” Autism for which he received the “Speak Out” award from Autism Speaks for going above and beyond in raising autism awareness to the public through the media. 

A while ago, on the Lou’s Land Facebook Page, I shared an email from Bianca's teacher praising her progress on the iPad at school. She asked if we had one at home as well because our daughter was so adept at it and Bianca seemed more engaged when doing tasks on the iPad.

I made mention in my post that we did not have an iPad, but that with the encouragement from the teacher we were most likely going to get one. We had been considering it for some time because Bianca really loves to play on our smartphones. She knows how to unlock the screen, navigate the various windows and get to the app that she wants to play and plays it. We were holding off because we wanted to make sure that it was something that she would use for an educational purpose, but also because they are costly and we wanted to justify the expense.

As soon as I shared the post about Bianca’s iPad prowess, readers began to suggest starting up a fundraiser and gathering donations... all of which I politely declined. It was incredibly flattering to see people that I don’t really know rallying in support of my daughter. I also got a text message from an autism mom named Ashleigh saying that she wanted to give Bianca an iPad. I was stunned.

I met Ashleigh at an Autism Speaks Leadership Conference that was being hosted by our chapter here in Chicago. We became Facebook “friends” and over time we developed a correspondence and an actual friendship. One day she needed to send me something via text message so I gave her my number. It is something I rarely give out to people I don’t technically “know” but something about her seemed kind, sincere and I could tell from her Facebook posts that she was a devoted mother doing all she could to contribute to the autism community and make the world a better place for her lovely son.

Since the conference we have texted one another about various topics of interest and concern within the autism community. She made a substantial donation to our walk team and allowed me to use a “This is Autism” pic of her son for our Oscar Party benefit. I helped Ashleigh out by making a few funny memes to use as fundraising tools for her autism walk team in return and supported her walk team as well.

The guy in me tried to politely turn down the generous offer of the iPad, but Ashleigh went on to explain that with the new incentive program for the Walk Now events that she would more than likely surpass the $10,000 fundraising threshold that needed to be crossed to redeem an iPad. She let me know that they did not need one and that it would mean the world to her if she could do this for our daughter. She also threatened to drive to Chicago personally and punch me in the throat if I didn’t take the iPad.

Little did I know what a powerhouse fundraiser Ashleigh was when it came to her walk team. She went on to raise individually more than $17,000 for her walk team this year. All totaled her team raised $20,599 and once again Alexander’s Autism Avengers cut the ribbon at the Northern New England Walk Now for Autism Speaks event. It is the third year in a row that they have cut the ribbon.

Bianca loves her iPad. She received it just a couple of weeks ago, just in time for Christmas. A huge smile spread across her face when she saw it. She pointed to it right away and kept repeating, “iPad, iPad, iPad”. We are now looking at the myriad of apps and trying to find the ones that we think Bianca will not only enjoy, but learn from. At 8 years of age, Bianca’s speech is starting to come around and we are anxious to see how she takes to any of the augmentative communication apps that are available. We will be working with our speech therapist to decide which one will work best for Bianca.

So from one family touched by autism to another, we thank Ashleigh for her generous gift. More importantly we thank her for her dedication to her son and the autism community as a whole. My daughter and countless other autistic individuals are fortunate to have people like Ashleigh and her family in their corner.

My goal now and my challenge to you is to try and pay this forward. Seek out other families touched by autism and try to honor them with a random act of kindness. It doesn’t have to be an iPad. It could be something small, something homemade, free babysitting… anything. Maybe you could start a new holiday tradition? Because the admirable thing to me was that while my family was happy to receive the iPad, Ashleigh was even happier in giving it. And isn’t that what this holiday season is supposed to be about?