ST. CHARLES – Giant Steps students clapped in anticipation as they neared James O. Breen Community Park on Wednesday morning.
For the fourth consecutive year, the Tri-City Chargers Youth Football Association and Giant Steps, a therapeutic day school in Lisle for elementary, junior-high, and high school students affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders, partnered to excuse the students for the school day, and instead of holding pencils, they were enjoying bubbles and tackling football dummies.
The event also allowed players from local football programs an opportunity to learn about autism and how to interact with people who have difficulty communicating or adapting to their environment.
Autism is a neurobiological disorder that affects how the brain interprets sensory experiences. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) affects about 1 out of 68 children in the United States. An estimated 170 students from Giant Steps participated in the event, along with roughly 200 members of the Tri-City Chargers youth program and high school players from St. Charles North, St. Charles East, Marmion and Geneva, serving as the student's buddies for the day, and participating in the events with them.
“This event shows me how everyone is different,” said St. Charles East senior Blake Flacka, who has a relative affected by autism. “Even if they live a certain way, [we can show them] to live life to the fullest.”
Lacey Landneier, a program assistant at Giant Steps, said that some of her students were clapping in excitement as they headed to the event.
“It's awesome that [the football players] make our students feel included,” she said.
Organizers' goal for the day was to make the experience special for the kids. When the students arrived, they walked under an inflatable Charger helmet tunnel, and were greeted by players holding custom jerseys with their names on the back. At the end of the day, each Giant Steps student received a trophy and had lunch with their new buddies.
“By the time they leave, the kids have a new best friend. That experience is invaluable for children with autism,” said President and CEO of Giant Steps, Bridget O'Connor. “For the all the coaches, it's so important to them that [their athletes] know more than just football. They're working on what it means to be a good person, and accept someone … I don't think people tell that [part of the] story enough.”
The camp has seen immense growth since its first year in 2010. Vice president of Tri-City Youth Football Association Board of Directors Ed Druck estimates 80 to 100 Giant Steps students participated then, but through the support of corporate sponsors and the community, the camp has evolved to more than double that number. The camp cost about $7,000 dollars for the individualized jerseys, food and drinks, which were paid for buy the Tri-City football board, according to Druck.
“We wanted to get involved with a charity that helped kids, and allow us to give back to the community,” Druck said. “[We don't want to] just teach our athletes. We want to give them life experiences. … I want to thank the high schools and volunteers for their support – without them, we couldn't make this event what it is.”