Raising autism awareness

At the banquet Friday evening, Rachel Hadley, left, and Eunice Johnson
Saturday morning, participants walked behind a banner which read “Love Needs No Words”


Eunice Johnson is well aware that April is Autism Awareness Month. With several autistic children in the community and three autistic grandchildren of her own, she wants to make sure other people are aware too.
Johnson organized and hosted the Inaugural Autism Awareness Banquet Friday evening, April 12, and the Annual Autism Awareness Walk the next day.
The banquet
Pastor G.W. Whitley, Harris Street AOH Church in Atmore, opened the banquet with prayer. He thanked the Lord for this community. He asked for blessings on our children.
Johnson opened the floor for anyone who wanted to comment. Cherish Fletcher with the Regional Autism Network of Mobile commended Johnson and her leadership in trying to secure resources for the community.
The most emotional speaker was Rachel Hadley, special education teacher at Rachel Patterson Elementary. She has two of Johnson’s grandchildren in her class. She was emotional as she talked about teaching and caring for all the children in her care.
Others speaking were Rachel Patterson Principal Toya McMillian, Pat Mason, Municipal Court Judge Karean Reynolds; Escambia County Board of Education President Loumeek White.
The walk
With only minutes to go before the scheduled 10 a.m. start to the fourth awareness walk, only a handful of people — including Mayor Jim Staff, Mayor Pro Tem Shawn Lassiter, Municipal Court Judge Karean Reynolds and Loumeek White, president of the county school board — had gathered at the empty lot across from Atmore Grill on North Main Street, from where the event was to begin.
But as the clock’s hands raced for the designated time, dozens of people of all ages and colors began to arrive by vehicle or on foot, several of them pushing strollers. When the event finally got under way around 10:20 a.m., more than 70 people hit the asphalt of Main Street for the one-mile-plus walk to Heritage Park. Many carried signs; others listened to music on headphones as they walked.
Another 20 or so people waited at the park for the marchers to arrive, after which a celebration was held that included balloons, brief speeches, Curtis Tucker’s barbecue grill and songs that kept booming from DJ Double-R’s sound system.
Brandon Tanner, an associate pastor at Empowerment Tabernacle, provided the invocation, and organizer Eunice Johnson, also a member of the city council, talked of forming a local support group that would push for more and better services for autistic children and adults. She also talked about organizing a “movie night” at the Strand Theatre for these individuals.
Reynolds, Staff and Lassiter spoke briefly of how much Johnson has been able to accomplish since her daughter, Charla, gave birth to three children who are on the spectrum. Charla and the children were in the front line, with Eunice, when the walk began.
“Eunice has worked very hard on this for several years,” Lassiter said to the assemblage. “Last year, I walked out, and this is like multiplied by five.”
Reynolds also praised the work the city councilwoman has done to raise awareness of autism and gave a special shoutout to the dozens of young people who gave up their Saturday to take part in the observance.
Veronica Valero Cervantes of University of South Alabama’s Regional Autism Network, which is funded by the Alabama Department of Mental Health, was one of three USARAN representatives who answered questions about the organization and its effort to improve services for those on the autism spectrum.
Marlo Young, a mental health specialist who Johnson called “the key to getting this done,” also spoke, and local daycare providers Angela Montgomery, Jeannie Ferrell and Ora Banks praised the work done to bring autism to the forefront.
To ease the solemn feel of the event, Feathers and Fangs, a non-profit animal rescue organization, brought a bald python, dog and cat for people to gaze at and have photos made with. There was also a bouncy house, and food and drinks were provided.
Johnson said the response each year’s Autism Awareness Walk has gotten provides her with the will to push her awareness effort to the limit.
“You’ve got to have people in the same room who are working for the same thing,” she said, stressing to parents that they should have their child checked immediately if he or she shows signs of autism. “We’re moving forward. The best is yet to come.”

A group bows in prayer at the beginning of Saturday’s walk