On Thursday, July 23, 150 members of the autism community in Western New England got geared up for their Walk...by roller-skating. The WNE Kick-Off was held at Interskate 91S roller rink in Wilbraham, MA, and the sensory-friendly atmosphere at the venue was a big hit with families who had avoided skating in the past because of noise and crowds.
In this rink, on this night, accommodation was key. Music volume was kept low, lighting was subtle and consistent, and the rules were bent to allow parents in shoes on to the parquet to accompany young learners - some of whom took to skating in an immediate, confident manner.
"We tried it and I think he really enjoyed it," mom Becca Matthews said of her little guy Jesse's turns on the rink. "It was great to be able to be right there with him and not be crowded or overwhelmed by noise."
One of the noisiest corners of the huge rink was the Western New England Walk Now for Autism Speaks table, where staff and committee members handed out Walk materials and coached new walkers and team leaders on best methods of fundraising. Another hot spot in the room was a photo area where Springfield Falcons AHL mascot, Screech, posed for photos and joked with families. Still more families gathered in the cafe for pizza, popcorn, and a break from skating.
The friendly din throughout the venue was hushed to absolute silence when featured speaker Gilberto "Tono" Molina took the microphone and spoke a little about his journey with autism.
A self-advocate and student leader, 17-year old Tono talked about the importance of family, support, and dreams that sustain him and inform his current goals. He said he is also interested in learning more about leadership and teamwork.
"Just last week I attended two leadership conferences," Tono said. "One with Best Buddies in Indiana and the other was the Massachusetts Youth Leadership Forum in Bridgewater."
In the fall, Tono will be a junior at Springfield Central High School, where he plans to devote himself not only to obvious academic pursuits, but to some of his favorite past times as well: making stop-action Lego movies and making people laugh.
Tono and his dad, Gil, will be working behind the scenes as committee members at Western New England Walk Now for Autism Speaks on Saturday, September 26th at Stanley Park in Westfield, MA.
"We'll be there," Gil Molina said. "We can't wait!"