Beta Rho Brothers Run for Autism Awareness
POSTED: 2008-05-29 :: LAST UPDATED: 2008-06-09, 10:30 ET

In early April, a Beta Rho alumnus dropped by the chapter house hoping to recruit a few brothers to participate in an upcoming event. Jim Gillespie (Penn), class of '79, says he knew it was "a shot in the dark." Unfortunately, he showed up at the house at an inopportune time; the brothers were in the middle of a chapter meeting, and no one was available to speak with him.

He slid a note under the door about the April 20th Penn Relays Distance Classic, a 5K race in which he and his family and friends were participating for the second year on behalf of "Autism Speaks." Jim's 14-year old son Brendan has autism, and the family has become active in advocacy, awareness and fundraising efforts for the cause. Because April is Autism Awareness Month, they chose the already popular Penn Relays as part of their effort to build interest and awareness around campus and the community.

Brother Josh Eisenberg (Penn) found Jim's note at the house and responded with an energetic offer to help. "We're interested. What do you need and when do you need it," asked Josh. Knowing that volume and visibility would play a big role in getting them noticed, Jim quickly responded asking Josh to field a team of Sigma Nus to participate in the 5K, wearing blue Autism Speaks T-shirts.

Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism advocacy organization, holds walking and running events across the country year-round to raise funds and awareness. With the expense of putting on such a race, Jim decided last year that they'd be better off plugging in to an already successful event. The Penn Relays, already scheduled during Autism Awareness Month, seemed like the perfect idea. In year one, they gathered a group of six family members and friends and entered as "Autism Speaks at the Penn Relays." Together they raised $3,000 for the cause.

This year, there were 25 participants running the 5K on behalf of Autism Speaks, and in total, the group raised $5,000. Seven of the runners were brothers from the Beta Rho chapter, including: Josh Eisenberg, Jake Walker, Will Travis, Sid Chandrasekhar, Steve Bibu, Ran Wei and Jeremy Estey. Jeremy, a club runner at Penn, placed third overall in the event with an impressive 18:32 finish time. Even though the other six don't consider themselves runners, they participated in order to help Jim and Autism Speaks get the word out.

Josh also helped coordinate the chapter's participation in another fundraising event earlier this year, put on by a sorority, to help support cancer research. "Everyone had a lot of fun being part of that event," says Josh. "However, the opportunity to support Autism Awareness was special because it was associated with an alumnus. We are enthusiastic about participating in future years and being even more involved than we were this year," he says.

Jim genuinely appreciates the response he received from the chapter. "I was standing on the corner of 33rd Street that day and saw a wall of blue coming toward me. It was the Sigma Nus, and all of them were wearing their Autism Speaks T-shirts. As we were walking together to the start line there were three police officers, guarding the closed off streets, who noticed us and stopped to say they, too, have autistic children," he recalls.

What most people don't know is that 1 in every 150 children is diagnosed with autism. Limit the scope to boys and the odds are worse, at 1 in every 94. According to Autism Speaks, 67 children are diagnosed each day. "The saying goes, among my friends with autistic children, 'If you don't know someone with autism, just wait 20 minutes,'" says Jim.

Jim's 14-year-old son Brendan was diagnosed at age 2 with Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism. Doctors advised Jim and his wife that their son might never be able to say his own name, but that couldn't be further from the truth today. "With much hard work on his part, Brendan is very articulate and has become an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. He's been the driving force behind much of our efforts," says Jim.

In March, Jim and Brendan went to Washington, D.C. to meet with the founders of Autism Speaks and Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who has since introduced a bill to Congress that would help families affected by autism to put away funds for future medical expenses.

Jim is already looking forward to next year's Penn Relays Distance Classic, at which he's certain to start earlier to get the chapter involved and hopefully secure corporate sponsorship to increase their fundraising efforts.

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