BY RICH PALZEWIC
Myles Welnetz is now a ninth grader at Bay Port High School, but when he was a third-grade student at Meadowbrook Elementary in Howard, Wisconsin, he inspired his teacher, Vanessa Moran, to do great things. Moran, along with the 22 third graders that comprised the class, founded an autism awareness event called 2Myles4Autism after their fellow classmate.
Myles has autism, which is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior.
To raise awareness and promote acceptance, Myles and hundreds of other people took take part in the 7th Annual 2Myles4Autism run/walk April 28 at Meadowbrook. The event followed a 2.5-mile course.
“You could say that Myles had a rough start to his educational career,” said Moran. “When I found out that he was coming into my classroom, I wanted to do something to help the other students understand what autism was.”
Moran had Myles’ ABA therapist come in and explain what autism was to the classroom by doing a demonstration and that opened their eyes to what Myles deals with on a daily basis. The therapist stacked books one-by-one in a pile in his hand. As he added each book, he explained that it represented something that did not go as intended during the course of the day. One by one, the books got higher until they all fell over onto the floor. He explained that that is when a “meltdown” occurs and shared that it was not because of the one thing, but was a compilation of everything that had occurred before it.
“It was like a lightbulb went on for the students from that moment forward,” Moran said. “Once they all saw that demonstration, they were able to truly empathize with Myles’ daily struggles and rallied behind him. It was unbelievable how supportive they were and how they would do anything to help him.”
Before they planned their own event, one of the things that Moran and her students looked into was doing an autism walk down in Kimberly, Wisconsin, but high costs due to bus transportation put an end to that thought.
It was after that failed attempt that the Golden Apple recipient was sitting in a meeting with Myles’ dad, Ryan – who is also the principal of Suamico Elementary – that she thought of the idea to have her students put on their own walk.
“The very next day after the meeting, we talked to the kids about doing their own event and they ran with it,” added Moran. “They organized the entire thing. We thought maybe we’d get about 100 people that first year but ended up with 600 in the freezing cold. They wanted to do it the next year and before I knew it, we had an annual tradition.”
Like Myles, the rest of the kids that helped organize the original event are now in high school, but that doesn’t mean they don’t participate anymore. Classes from 4K all the way through high school in the Howard-Suamico School District (HSSD) help organize the event.
New this year, 2Myles4Autism will be devoting a significant amount of funding to sponsor a HSSD student with autism in the Project SEARCH Program. Project SEARCH is a business-led collaboration that enables young adults with disabilities to gain and maintain employment through training and career exploration – it’s offered locally at St. Vincent and Bellin Hospitals in Green Bay. The training will have a long-lasting impact on the lives of the participants.
The unique thing about all the money raised is that 100 percent of it stays local in the Howard-Suamico School District and is used to provide direct support to students in the district with autism that they wouldn’t normally receive.
“After that very first year, we were able to get Myles an iPad before we had them in the classroom like we do today to help him communicate,” noted Moran. “And it wasn’t just for Myles, but any student in the district with autism. We’ve even branched out to supporting students with other kinds of disabilities as well, providing tools, technology, and trainings for staff and parents. All of this is made possible because students reach out to these businesses to solicit donations and the community responded.”
Last year the event had its largest cash donation to date of $1,350. That came entirely from students, as the fifth graders in the “Badger House” at Lineville Intermediate had a penny war.
Last year was also the first year that Meadowbrook did a school-wide walk during the school day to raise awareness the day before the actual event. All 570 students participated.
Today Myles is doing great and is already looking at college options. Moran stated that Myles’ parents expect him to be a fully functional member of society and that he will have his own life, and maybe his own family someday.