Autism Walk of Surry raises $32,000

By Jessica Johnson

April 27, 2014

Support for autism in Surry County was on full display Saturday, with more than 1,600 people showing up for the third annual Autism Walk of Surry. The goal of $30,000 was exceeded, with a total of $32,000 raised for the Surry County chapter of the Autism Society of North Carolina. This year’s walk broke records for amount of money raised, and number of participants.

The event took place at Riverside Park, with the walk proceeding along the Ararat River Greenway Trail.

All the money raised is kept in Surry County and used by the Surry County Chapter of the Autism Society to provide workshops and one-on-one in classroom training for teachers. Funds also will help to send parents to an autism conference to learn more about autism, organizer Bridge Soots said. The group also will buy more books for the resource library and will provide iPads for individuals in schools.

“We provided over $6,000 last year for schools, and will do the same this year, including Surry County Schools, Mount Airy City Schools and Millennium Charter Academy,” Soots said.

Supporters and families began arriving as early as 7:30 a.m. for the kick-off and walk which officially began at 9 a.m. with multiple speakers, including Dr. Cecil Thoppil, a pediatrician with Novant Health Surry Medical Associates; City Commissioner Jim Armbrister; Sen. Richard Burr’s Field Representative Mike Finley; autistic artist and public speaker D.J. Svoboda, and Gentry Middle School student Allyni Tate. City Commissioner Shirley Brinkley also came out in support of the event.

Tate raised more than $1,000 for the walk, and was featured as an official sponsor for the event, with a logo she designed on the back of all the T-shirts. Tate spoke to the crowd and shared that she did it all in honor of her brother Colton, who has autism. Tate described how she wrote letters, asking for support, in order to make a difference in the lives of those with autism.

“I am blessed with my brother that I have and I want to say thank you to all of you. God blessed me with the miracle of my brother,” Tate expressed.

Svoboda excited and moved the crowd with his motivational speech. Svoboda is an autistic artist and a public speaker who designed Imagiville, a world of “colorful, loving characters.” He said he was teased and made fun of, which inspired him to create Imagiville, to share with others that it is OK to be different. His art has been featured in numerous publications and he has been featured on radio and television interviews.

“What everyone is inside is more important than the outside….I want to give all those with Autism the confidence and self-determination that they can fulfill their dreams.” For more information about Svoboda and Imagiville, visit

Armbrister followed Svoboda, and told the crowd he wanted to take lessons in public speaking from Svoboda, who impressed him with his speech. He went on to share that he worked with the Mount Airy Police Department and Emergency Services to learn how to better interact with people who have autism, including a telecommunications database containing information in the E-911 database, so when police and emergency personnel respond to emergency calls, they can better understand the situation if someone with autism lives in the home.

“We can all do our part to make things better,” Armbrister said.

Thoppil shared that children with autism have a wide range of signs and symptoms, such as deficits in communication, difficulty with social interaction, repetitive patterns of behavior, and more. He also gave details about Asperger’s Syndrome, which is known as high-functioning autism. He said autism appears to be on the rise, with one in 68 children now diagnosed and shared that although there is no medical test for autism; instead it is diagnosed based on observation of communication, behavior, and social development levels. He added that he considers it a privilege to take care of many children who have autism, and to help their families, who often deal with added stress.

“The more we talk about autism, the more we write about it and discuss it, and the more awareness is out there, and the more willingness there is to fund and support the cause,” Thoppil said.

Vendors were set up under tents, and there was a display of motorcycles from the Chariots of Fire Motorcycle Ministry. Co-chapter leader Lisa Jeffries was on hand, greeting and thanking participants, and many school groups participated, with 12 schools that had 20 or more members on the team. The largest school group was the team from B.H. Tharrington Primary School. Three East Surry High School students used their senior projects to support autism awareness, with one student raising $520 for the walk. East Surry High School teacher Brandon Cook entertained the crowd with a special song prior to the walk.

Soots said she wanted to thank all the sponsors, everyone who participated, and those who purchased a T-shirt. There was no admission fee and no charge to participate, so all the monetary support came from those who purchased T-shirts, gave donations, and the donations from sponsors.

“I appreciate everyone coming out and supporting us. I want to also thank Highland Park Baptist Church, who came out and helped set up and take down, as well as the walk committee and the Girl Scout Troop 40465. Also a big thanks to McDonald’s who provided food and coffee, and brought Ronald McDonald for the walk. Thanks to all the vendors and also those who spoke at the kick-off.”

Monthly meetings for the Autism Society take place on the last Thursday of the month at the Salvation Army in Mount Airy at 6:30 p.m. Soots said anyone who would like to join the group, including family members, parents, teachers, therapists, and supporters should email her at to join the contact list.

“We would love to keep growing and help people in need. Our group is so unique because we can talk to our families and friends, but it is not like talking to someone who knows what we go through,” Soots said, about the group. “We help one another and it is an amazing support group. I learn something every time I go, and I have been there since the beginning. It’s just amazing.”

For more information about autism, visit

Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 and on Twitter @MountAiryJess.