The WNC Run/Walk for Autism celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and Katie Wills has been with it every step of the way.
Katie moved to Asheville in 2000 with her husband, Lewis, and son, Jesse, who was then a teenager. Jesse was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3 and is nonverbal. Since the family’s move, Jesse has received many services from the Autism Society of North Carolina (ASNC), including help with school issues and community skills instruction so he could be a part of his community. “That was just invaluable to us,” Katie said.
Knowing how much ASNC had supported her son over the years inspired Katie. “It’s just a part of who I am to feel that we need to give back,” she said.
So in late 2005, she asked ASNC leadership in Asheville how she could help sustain and improve services that the organization offered. After some brainstorming with Amy Hobbs, the regional director, they decided to create the first regional Run/Walk for Autism. Katie agreed to organize the event even though she did not know anything about running and had never done any fundraising. “When you love your son, and you know something’s really important, you do it.”
In 2006, ASNC held the first WNC Run/Walk for Autism, a trail run at a park outside of Asheville. The crowd was not that big, and it was so cold that they needed a bonfire, but all agreed it was a success.
“It was important to us that this not just be a fundraiser, but that it be a community festival,” Katie said. Ten years later and now held at UNC-Asheville, the WNC Run/Walk for Autism maintains that feel with children’s activities, live music, food, and exhibits from community partners.
“A lot of the runners who come don’t know anything about autism. I think they get a real education. They really get to meet the families,” she said. “It’s just a great community outreach.”
Katie helped lead the Run/Walk for the first three years and also served on the event committee for a couple of years after that. Nowadays, she still volunteers for the week of the run.
On race day, you can find her with her extended family and Team Marlowe, the team from Jesse’s residence. All of the staff members and residents participate; exercise is a big part of the program at Marlowe Place.
Katie hopes to see the WNC Run/Walk for Autism continue to grow, saying that it is especially fun when you are part of a team with friends and family. Her extended family has joined them from the beginning, after a little prompting from her: “Over the years, you have said to us, how can we help, I want to help. I don’t know how to help. Well, guess what, now’s your chance. When you help the Autism Society, then you help the Wills family. Because I don’t know what we would do without the Autism Society.”
Today, Jesse is 34 and works part-time at Red Lobster, with the support of an ASNC job coach. His supervisors say he is a “valued and valuable” employee, and he is a contributing member of his community, Katie said.
“It’s just been amazing to us what doors have been opened to Jesse because of the Autism Society,” Katie said. “Even at 34, he’s still learning things that make him more and more independent. That’s what we want for him.”
Step out to improve lives in the WNC Run/Walk for Autism at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12! The event at UNC-Asheville will include a 5K race, which is part of the Asheville Track Club Grand Prix Series; a 5K noncompetitive run; and a recreational 1K run/walk. Celebrate autism awareness and acceptance in the Fun Zone for children and with music and refreshments. Vendor space will showcase local businesses, service providers, support resources, and sponsors. Proceeds will fund local programs of the Autism Society of North Carolina.
Register today: www.wncrunwalkforautism.comTags: Advocacy, ASNC, Asperger Syndrome, Asperger's Syndrome, autism, autism advocacy, autism awareness, autism nc, autism north carolina, autism society of NC, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism spectrum, autism support, Run/Walk for Autism, wnc