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Record Crowd Attends Autism Speaks' 2008 Annual Volunteer Conference

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March 13, 2008

Over 400 Autism Speaks volunteers and staff members gathered in northern Virginia last weekend for the annual Autism Speaks Volunteer Leadership Conference. Participants attended meetings, breakout sessions, an awards dinner and spent time sharing ideas. “For the first time everyone was exchanging positive energy and information,” said Jeff Chiusano, Director of the Atlanta Walk Now for Autism. “Volunteers were sharing success stories from their walks that others could implement.”

The theme “building the future together” was best reflected in the Expo Hall. All areas of the organization were represented and attendees were able to visit and speak with people from all aspects of the organization, from learning about the Autism Treatment Network, to getting a sneak peek at what's new in the online store, to speaking with an Autism Response Team coordinator about their personal situation. “The theme of the conference was completely appropriate,” said Judith Ursitti, formerly of Dallas, now the Boston Chapter Advocacy Chair. “The future is where the hope for my sweet Jack lies and this past year has proven that facing it with a united front is incredibly effective!”

Autism Speaks President Mark Roithmayr opened the conference Saturday afternoon with an inspirational presentation about Autism Speaks accomplishments in 2007, congratulating the group on raising $61.3 million. “The power of one,” said Roithmayr, “one person, one donation, one walk has made us the largest autism agency in the world, with 77 cents of every dollar funding mission-based programs.”

There was much to celebrate over the weekend, from the announcement that $30 million was funded in autism research, to the great strides being made in family services. The new 100 Day Kit launch was lauded. Participants agreed that conference highlighted the incredible strides that the organization has made. “I think that last year we all felt a little cautious about merger and where we were going,” said Sharon Boyd, Florida Statewide Chapter Advocacy Chair. “This year, we were one strong voice! All of us working together, playing together, and fighting together. I loved it.”

The 2007 Volunteer Awards dinner was held Saturday night with awards presented to the top fundraising walks, top teams, best new walks, best press coverage and many more including science awards, the new President's Award and the Founders' Award. Click here to read more about the awards. Larry Richert, host of NewsRadio KDKA 1020 Morning Show in Pittsburgh and active Greater Pittsburgh Walk participant, served as Master of Ceremonies and kept the crowd in stitches with his political impersonations.

On Sunday, Randy Lewis, SVP at Walgreens spoke about their new and most efficient distribution center where one third of the employees have disabilities, including autism.

“I have been so inspired by reports of the Anderson (S.C.) facility and the great strides Mr. Lewis is making on behalf people with autism and other disabilities that we chose to support Walgreens with all of our pharmacy needs and

Highlights from Randy Lewis's keynote address
YouTube Video ~ 3 minutes

I encourage everyone I know to do so," said Christine Bakter of the Central N.J. Walk. “I was struck by the strong simplicity of his message – which was essentially, ‘I did it because it needed to be done.' This attitude is a cornerstone at Autism Speaks.”

Nearly 250 volunteers and staff descended on Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet with their representatives and discuss autism. The highlight of the day was a press conference held by Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) to introduce the Disability Savings Act of 2008. The event was attended by Autism Speaks co-founders Bob and Suzanne Wright, as well as Autism Speaks volunteers and staff.

The Disability Savings Act encourages individuals with disabilities and their families to save private funds for disability related expenses to supplement, not supplant, benefits provided by other sources (including Medicaid and private insurance) so that people with disabilities can maintain health, independence, and quality of life.

Senator Dodd spoke for approximately ten minutes remarking that it takes any army to make gains on Capitol Hill and that the Autism Speaks staff and volunteers were "his army" behind the Disability Savings Act. Bob Wright also spoke briefly about Autism Speaks partnering with Senator Dodd on this groundbreaking legislation. Click here for a press release about the Disability Savings Act, and here for a photo gallery from the press conference.

The overall feeling expressed by the volunteers was that of hope and progress. “It was very emotional and empowering,” said Sharon Boyd. “I just loved hearing and seeing the hope for my son's future.”

“I definitely feel Autism Speaks is going in the right direction,” said Judith Ursitti, “and the conference confirmed that.”