Meaghan Haugh

The odds of claiming the Mega Millions jackpot are a staggering one in 135 million, and yet, people routinely line up to purchase tickets, convinced that chance favors them. So why, a group of Rider University students want to know, do people seem so blissfully unaware that the odds of a child being diagnosed with autism are a daunting one in 110?

Rider Education majors Angela DiFranco, Chris Bolotov and Nicole Moore spent the weekend of April 24 and 25 in Lambertville, N.J., at the river town’s annual Shad Festival socializing with members of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey community to spread awareness and raise money for Autism New Jersey. They were joined by Rider faculty members Dr. Michele Wilson Kamens, professor of Teacher Education, and Dr. Joanne Vesay, assistant professor of Teacher Education, as well as adjunct professor Sue Ellen McConville.

The thousands who flocked to the banks of the Delaware River for the Shad Festival were greeted by more than 30 Rider student volunteers and members of the University’s Special Education faculty, who all sported brightly colored T-shirts championing Autism awareness. “Odds of winning the Mega Millions: 1 in 135,145,920. Odds of being a child diagnosed with autism: 1 in 110,” the shirts soberly declared. DiFranco used money from her own tax return to fund production of the T-shirts. 

“Angela is a special person. She has not only raised money and awareness for autism but she is a true social leader for many other worthy causes,” said Dr. Diane Casale-Giannola, associate professor of Undergraduate Teacher Education. “For one young college student, she has done the work that teams of community leaders couldn’t do so successfully.”

What started out as a way to attain the 10-hour community service commitment for a psychology class turned into a 50-plus-hour venture that has, so far, generated more than $1,100 for Autism New Jersey, the premiere family support group for autism in the Garden State. While the rate of autism is high nationwide, it is observed with the greatest frequency in New Jersey, where many families affected by the disorder are drawn by the state’s outstanding schools and programs available for these individuals.

“There are so many misconceptions about autism. These kids look like you and me, but in reality, they are different, though not less than a person,” DiFranco said. “Autism affects so many children and families in New Jersey, and now, with Autism New Jersey hit hard by cuts to the Department of Developmental Disabilities, we just wanted to work to make some of that money back.”

The students, many of whom serve as volunteer ambassadors for Autism New Jersey, purchased the table space at Shad Festival, where they sold bracelets, magnets and pins, all in support of this cause.

The popular booth attracted the attention of many young children at the festival, including Giannola’s daughter, Victoria Giannola, and her friend, Kayla Albrethson, who recently started a “Go Dough” campaign in support the fight against autism. The two 6th graders manufacture Go Dough, a type of clay similar to Play-Doh modeling compound, and sell it to raise money for autism education and research. The Go Dough was quite a hit at the fair, and the girls even drew the interest of Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno and Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th), who recognized the entire group for their advocacy efforts toward this worthy cause. 

DiFranco credits her team of Rider students and youth volunteers for the successful awareness campaign at the Shad Festival, but says their work will not stop here. She urges others to join the fight against autism by visiting the Autism New Jersey Web site and becoming an ambassador. 

“All of the workers are volunteers; all of the funding is through donations,” DiFranco said. “With New Jersey having the highest prevalence of autism in the nation, we need to get involved.”