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History of Autism Aware Fare

At the close of 2001, the Board of the Autism Society North Carolina - Mecklenburg County Chapter began reevaluating fundraising efforts. Previous fundraisers which included such activities as a large, community yard sale and assisting a Mexican restaurant at Cinco de Mayo were successful in raising money, but they lacked the ability to spread awareness. Learning of an event in Cumberland County called Fair Share which involved restaurants making donations to the Autism Society of Cumberland County, an idea was born for a similar event in our area. That idea would become Autism Aware Fare.

Autism Aware Fare had several advantages over other fundraisers. Obviously, the ability to generate revenue from participating restaurants was paramount. This would allow the local Autism Society chapter to continue important outreach and to begin new programs such as offering grants to teachers for supplies to address the needs of their students with autism. Another advantage of Autism Aware Fare was the ability of anyone wishing to participate to be able to do so conveniently throughout all areas of the county. The variety of restaurants also allowed patrons to participate at whatever cost best fit their budgets. Most importantly the new event allowed the Autism Society to spread awareness with table tents and bill inserts at the participating restaurants. These offered information about autism and resources for help.

The first Autism Aware Fare was held in April, 2002 which coincided with National Autism Awareness Month. Jackie and Michael Richardson contributed time and artistic ideas to the event, and then president, Nancy Popkin, and Gwen Capers-Singleton worked tirelessly to make the first event a success. On WFAE, the Charlotte NPR radio station, Elizabeth Phillippi gave a touching account of a plane trip with her family and an opportunity she had to spread awareness with a stranger. She seized the chance to change a complaint about her son's paper tearing, which calmed him, into a new understanding.

In 2003 Nancy Popkin teamed up with Betsy Gustafson. Realizing the need for an event website, they developed AutismAwareFare.com, which offered basic event information and links to the restaurants and sponsors. That year, WLNK, 107.9, the LINK offered some promotional support to the event which included a personal plea for public support from Bob Lacy of the Bob and Sheri Show and an appearance on the Matt and Ramona Show. This began a long-term and much appreciated relationship with the LINK which has increased its commitment to Autism Aware Fare each year. In 2004, Jim Dutton of Broadway Technologies, Inc. took the basic site and improved it with color, multiple pages, and an overall professional look. Restaurant participation grew, too, as Linda Campbell developed relationships with some of the key newcomers.

During 2005, Bonnie Johnson co-chaired the event. By this time, it had grown to include 43 restaurant locations. In 2006, Missy Sargent stepped in to help along with Nancy Nestor, president of ASNC-MCC, who had already contributed to marketing the event for years.

In 2007 Burke Communications, Inc. redesigned the web site and print materials with a new look and some spectacular additions and updates. This included moving the web site to its current home, www.AutismAwareFare.org. The logo was re-done in 2009 by Laura Hoffman; and 2010 saw the co-chair roles go to Kathy Snyder and John Cavanaugh for the event.

2012 was a momentous year for Autism Aware Fare; our 10th anniversary and Levine Children's Hospital honored us with Presenting Sponsorship. The commitment at the $5000 level meant our little fundraiser was growing up. We are and continue to be appreciative of the support and commitment of the Carolinas Healthcare Foundation.

The 10th anniversary was a milestone that the Board of Directors felt needed something special to commemorate. After much deliberation, the IPAD Initiative was created. Our mission has always been to help our children succeed in school and technology tools are vital to that effort. IPADS have been proven to aid children on the Autism Spectrum with language and reasoning skills. A donation of $12,500 was given to Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools so that IPADS would be provided to classrooms that serve our children on the spectrum, namely those classrooms lacking the device. All of this made possible by the generosity of our Title and Restaurant Sponsors.

Autism Aware Fare, much like an individual with autism, is ever-evolving, improving, growing up, and reaching out to the community for support and understanding. That community has continued to inquire, learn, and lend emotional and financial support. We are grateful and excited to watch the event grow each year. And we are ever thankful to our volunteers, our corporate sponsors and our restaurant partners.



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