Students walk for causes on NU Service Day

Students walk for causes on NU Service Day

By Abigail Zorbaugh

Tara Manchester tries her hardest to be a dedicated mom to her three children. She watches “Harry Potter” movies with them, plays the Yu-Gi-Oh video game and cheers them on at soccer games. Most importantly, she walks for them.

Manchester, 34, walked this Sunday in the Greater Boston Walk for Autism Research to help her 18-year-old son who is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism characterized mainly by poor communication skills.

A number of doctors took several years to properly diagnose her son, Anthony, with Asperger’s.

When he was born, doctors claimed Anthony had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a diagnosis they later amended, Manchester said. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome describes a variety of birth defects caused by women consuming large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy.

Manchester was also told that her son had attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a syndrome whose symptoms include hyperactivity, forgetfulness and distractibility.

“They kept coming up with different diagnoses that just didn’t fit,” Manchester said.

It wasn’t until he was about nine or 10 years old that Anthony was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, she said.

One difficulty parents with autistic children face is schooling, Manchester said.

Anthony originally attended Full Circle High School in Somerville, where, Manchester said, the director of the program was unwilling to learn about Asperger’s or autism.

“We basically fought against the school department,” Manchester said. “It felt like he was being reprimanded for his syndrome.”

Anthony now attends the Lighthouse School in North Chelmsford, which provides services to students with a broad range of disabilities.

The hardest thing, Manchester said, was feeling like she didn’t really know her own son. However, that is beginning to change.

“Now, with the help of other parents with autistic children and support groups, it’s getting easier to actually reach him,” she said. “I’m getting to know who my son is and that means the world to me.”

Sunday’s Greater Boston Walk for Autism Research helps children like Anthony by funding research and increasing awareness of the developmental disorder, she said.

The walk was filled with commotion. Most teams of walkers were wearing matching outfits. Some teams wore printed T-shirts displaying their team names. Wally, the Red Sox mascot, jumped around at the starting line with eager participants. A Channel 7 News cameraman hovered nearby, filming participants as they walked beneath a rainbow-colored balloon arch.

Northeastern students were not left out of the fun. Touched by stories such as Manchester’s and through their own experiences with children with autism, each student in attendance walked out of concern for the cause, said Jennifer Milia, a first-year graduate student studying school psychology, who led a handful of friends in the 5K walk around Cambridge’s Artesani Park.

Milia walked for the cause because of her personal experience working with autistic children in the past.

Her teammates had their own reasons for walking, too.

“It’s a great opportunity to raise awareness,” said Gina Cicala, a second-year graduate student studying social psychology.

Joining Milia and Cicala were Kira Gorin, Jess Miller, Anne Folen, Christina Federico and Susanne Foster, all first-year graduate students.

Milia and her group raised $2,005 for the cause.

Also at the walk were Northeastern football players and cheerleaders, who handed out flyers and painted kids’ faces. The cheerleaders performed stunts, cheering on the walk’s participants as they crossed the finish line.

Cheerleading captain Kristina Chianese, a middler finance and marketing major, said the walkers were grateful for the cheerleaders’ pep and thanked them for coming.

“We’re the cheerleaders, we’re supposed to be the positive attitude,” Chianese said. “We can bring that attitude to something like a walk for autism and go home knowing that it helped out a good cause.”

The football team is hoping to make this an annual event, said Rapheal Dowye, the team’s defensive back coach and recruitment coordinator.

Kimberly Niederst, the Northeast Senior Regional Director for Autism Speaks, the group that coordinated the walk, called this “the largest event we’ve ever had,” estimating that about 10,000 participants showed up for the walk.

“Five to 10 years ago, no one knew anything about autism,” Niederst said. “These families need answers and this walk does a fantastic job of helping to raise awareness.”

The walk was one of many events Northeastern students participated in over the weekend. Saturday was a Northeastern Service Day, during which students volunteered at several locations, including the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston, New Mission High School and the American Diabetes Association.

Caitlyn Keckeissen, a program assistant at the Center for Community Service, said NU Service Day is “an opportunity for members of the NU community to work with their neighbors throughout the community to provide valuable service accomplishing larger projects with neighborhood-based organizations.”

According to Keckeissen, the purpose of NU service day is to expose students to the community organizations so they can become “civically engaged” throughout the year.

592 students were registered for Saturday’s Service Day.

Keckeissen has fielded numerous calls and e-mails since Saturday regarding students’ participation in the event. Among the comments Keckeissen received was one from Pat Flaherty from the Mission Hill Neighborhood Housing Services. Flaherty, who hosted the NU Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team, said after a full day of work, staying much later than they were scheduled to stay, the volunteers were already talking about the next project they want to do.

Naia Wilson from the New Mission High School, where students assisted with painting and organizing classrooms, said, “They were so good – because it was a lot of, lot of work and it was dirty work.”

NU Service Day occurs twice a year. The next service day is January 15, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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