Autism Awareness Month shows the Waco community bond

April began autism awareness month across the country and Waco is among the many communities to show their support in many ways including lighting up the suspension bridge in blue on World Autism Day April 2. On Saturday morning, the Heart of Texas Autism network will host a 5K Run at 9 a.m., and a Fun Walk 10 a.m. at Bravos Park East. Photo credit: Gavin Pugh

April kicks off Autism Awareness Month around the world, but in Waco, it is a month that shows how strong the community bond is as many local businesses and individuals show their support for the Heart of Texas Autism Network.

“We work a lot with different restaurants to help them learn to become sensory friendly and autism friendly,” Stacy Rodriguez, president for Heart of Texas Autism Network, said. “We are teaching the community as a whole to be able to be tolerant and accepting of people with special needs, especially autism.”

This past weekend, the city lit up the Waco Suspension Bridge blue along with many other cities across the country for “Light it up Blue” on April 2, World Autism Day. Many iconic landmarks and buildings were lit blue to show support for those with autism and increase understanding of autism, according to the Autism Speaks website.

On Saturday morning, the Heart of Texas Autism Network 5K Run and Fun Walk will take place at Brazos Park East, put on by Heart of Texas Autism Network in conjunction with the Waco Striders. The run will start at 9 a.m., and the walk will start at 10 a.m. The walk will feature over 30 vendors, many activities and games, Zumba and a live DJ, Rodriguez said. Various sponsors there will be giving away prizes for kids and families.

Besides this fundraiser, donations can be made throughout the year to the Heart of Texas Autism Network. Registration can be done on the website until the day of the event. Funds stay in the Waco area and are used primarily for educating families.

“We are all volunteers,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really daunting and overwhelming sometimes, so being able to spread what we know and empower people is our goal. We are spreading knowledge and educating the community and eventually providing more resources.”

Rodriguez said that there aren’t a lot of resources about autism in the Waco area, so a goal is to get local agencies and companies to support the cause. This month, a few restaurants are showing their support for Heart of Texas Autism Network. On April 20, Old Chicago Pizza will donate 15 percent of their total profit to the organization. The week before that, Texas Roadhouse will be doing a Dine to Donate event, Rodriguez said, where customers are encouraged to mention Heart of Texas Autism Network for proceeds to be donated. The Hampton Inn will also be doing little fundraisers every Thursday night this month where the organization gets a portion, Rodriguez said.

Tuesday night at the Waco City Council meeting, Heart of Texas Autism Network was recognized by the city council with a mayor’s proclamation. Larry Holze, director of municipal information for the city of Waco, said one or two organizations have their operations supported by the city council at meetings. Rodriguez expressed gratitude for the support and said that without the help of the executive board and advisory council of Heart of Texas Autism Network, there would be no way for the organization to continue to achieve all that it does.

“The proclamation is something that we do at the request of various organizations,” Holze said. “That’s an agency that we support and hope that our citizens will recognize.”

Heart of Texas Autism Network currently works on helping families know the steps and the process of knowing their rights as parents. They do a lot of advocacy, linking and referral work and also sponsor programs that help bring awareness and acceptance to the community. Rodriguez said a main focus moving forward is to do more work with adults with special needs in order to help provide independence and services that help with life skills and occupational training. The group spreads resources and news through their website and social media accounts, primarily Facebook and Twitter.

“I don’t want anything out of this. I don’t have a child with special needs,” Rodriguez said. “Just for me, I enjoy feeling like I can empower. That’s our mission statement- empowering families to let them know they’re not alone. To be able to empower them to find resources and to be a resource for them, letting them know they can do this and there’s hope out there- that’s what fulfills me.”