Chief Mark Saunders is leading Service members in giving a voice to those with autism, having raised over $10,000 for programs that will help diagnose and treat those affected and raise awareness among first responders.
Chief Saunders’ team has already doubled its fundraising goal for the Autism Speaks Canada Walk on June 5 at Nathan Phillips Square.
“That’s amazing because it’s your first year,” Jill Farber, Autism Speaks Canada executive director, said at the inaugural 14th Division autism fundraiser on May 12. “I can only imagine, five years from now, what amount I will be seeing.”
Farber said the funds will be used to support the South Asian Autism Awareness Centre that developed a walk-in clinic for low-income families and new immigrants so their children can be diagnosed early and their families can benefit from the navigational support, and a comprehensive bilingual Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) first responders’ training program in Quebec.
“Your walk dollars are hitting research, advocacy, awareness and family services across the country,” added Farber.
The youngest of Saunders’ four children – Graham Saunders – has an autism spectrum disorder.
He thanked 14 Division for hosting the event.
“This is a big event for all of us,” said the 11-year-old.
Saunders was diagnosed with autism nearly seven years ago.
His mother, Stacey Saunders, has been at the forefront of helping to reduce the stigma associated with the disorder.
“There was this little girl who was drawn to Graham when he was in kindergarten and she would follow him around and hold his hand,” she said. “On this particular morning, when the parents gathered in the school’s hallway to help peel them out of their snowsuits, this little girl happily bounced up to Graham. Her father, realizing that this was the young lad with autism, promptly pulled his daughter back.
“As I was holding back tears, I said his autism is not contagious… Fast forward to present day and that same little girl is still best friends with our son. No one could tell her who she could love. Through honest dialogue and understanding that, while our children may act differently, they are normal. They are full of emotion, full of love and full of hope. Those parents adore Graham and it didn’t take very long. We tell Graham autism is a description and not a definition and it’s part of him and not the whole of him.”
Constable Cailey Ross who, with Inspector Colin Greenaway and other Divisional members, played an integral role in organizing the event, hopes it will be an annual affair.
“We all know someone or love someone who’s affected by autism,” she said.
Dragon's Den star and chairman of Difference Capital Michael Wekerle also spoke at the fundraiser.
"To make a donation at this event is easy because what comes back is a lot of emotional dollars," he said.