Here are the facts:
- 1 in 70 boys will be affected by autism
- 1 in 110 of all children will be affected by autism
- In 2012, autism will affect more children than AIDS, cancer, and diabetes
- Juvenile diabetes, which affects 1 in 500 children, receives $156 million in private funding
- Leukemia, which affects 1 in 1,200 children, receives $277 million in private funding
- Autism receives only $79 million in funding
- In 2010, the National Institutes of Health Funds Allocation had a budget of $35.6 billion–a mere $218 million, or 0.6 percent was tagged for Autism research
- There is NO medical detection or cure for autism
These facts are pretty sobering when you come to the realization that virtually every family in America will either be directly affected by this disease or have a close friend that is affected by it. Now imagine having not only one son, but two, that are affected by this horrible disease. Imagine trying to find out about early detection signs and what you can do to make your child’s life easier and running into roadblock after roadblock. This was the dilemma of Mike Monichetti, but instead of cowering from the challenges, he took them head on and is doing something about it!
For those of you that do not know Mike, he is the owner of Mike’s Seafood in Sea Isle City and other dining establishments in both Sea Isle City and nearby Ocean City. Needless to say, Mike has a fairly large and respected voice in the local community. Realizing he had an opportunity to help other families avoid obstacles he and his family faced when first realizing his children may have this disease, he decided to start the Polar Bear Run/Walk for Autism in Sea Isle City. His expectations at first were very small, as he was merely trying to make some type of contribution to research and raise some awareness. What this event has become in a short period of time is nothing short of incredible.
Since Mike’s busy time is the island’s tourist season, the planning of this event around the existing Polar Bear Plunge made sense. He teamed up with Jimmy Bennett to add his event to the schedule to complete the weekend. Now, every year, Mike and his team (restaurant staff who put in an incredible effort for months to help Mike with this event) work tirelessly organizing this event as soon as the busy season ends. I had the good fortune of spending an afternoon with Mike and his team to talk about the event, what it means to him, and his hopes for its future.
Gerald McConway: What was the inspiration behind this event?
Mike Monichetti: I wanted to raise public awareness of this disease. Yes, I have two children that are affected by autism, but this has nothing to do with them. We faced some challenges when we first found out about, or suspected, their condition and I wanted other families to become more aware of the condition.
There are times when people think a child’s behavior is due to being lazy or bad, but some of the signs they are showing are actually signs of autism. If more people are aware of this disease and its early symptoms, they can have their child tested to find out if there is a chance their child may actually have autism.
I cannot stress the importance in finding out as early as possible. The younger the child is when the problem is detected, the better the chance for the child to succeed in life. Early detection provides children with a better chance of developing the communication skills they need for a decent life. The longer parents wait, the less of a chance their child has in the future. I just want to make people aware so they can do what they need to do in order to help their kids.
GMcC: Tell me about the event. How was your first year and how has it progressed since?
MM: Our first year was 2009. We really did not know what to expect. I was hoping we would have 100 people show up. We ended up with over 500 participants and raised about $11,000. In 2010, we had a major snowstorm and I was really worried about how well we would do. Lenny [Mayor Desiderio] really stepped up and did what was needed to make our event and the Plunge a success. The city plowed roads and the boardwalk, every area we needed to pull off this event. Amazingly, we had 1,100 people show up and raised $32,800. Last year, we were hoping the event would continue to grow. The support was incredible. We had 1,800 participants and raised $61,000! For this year’s event, I am hoping we get about 2,000 people.
Where would I like to see the event go? Eventually, I would like to see 5,000 people participating and raise over $100,000 each year. I realize these are lofty goals, but the support we have received thus far in the short existence of the event has been incredible. I honestly never thought we would be where we are today in regard to the amount of money we have been able to raise for this cause.
GMcC: What charities, both locally and nationally, benefit from this event?
MM: Nationally, we support Autism Speaks (http://www.autismspeaks.org/). Locally, we support F.A.C.E.S (http://www.faces-autismsupport.org/), which is a Cape May County support group dedicated to autism awareness and education. We also support the Ocean Academy School of Special Services (http://www.cmcspecialservices.org/oa).
GMcC: In the future, if the event continues to grow, what other contributions do you see it making for autism?
MM: I would love to see our event sponsor a group home for adults with autism. One idea is to set up a home on Route 9. It would be nice if we could grab four or five acres of land, allow residents to farm the area, and have a fruit and vegetable stand to help support themselves.
GMcC: Would you like to see some type of home actually located in Sea Isle City?
MM: I never actually thought about that until you just brought it up, but that is a fantastic idea. If we could sponsor a home where one family member and one autistic child or adult from several families could come for a week at a time to have a vacation, I think it would be great. If we could fund that and provide some type of support staff for them while they stayed, I think it would be incredible. Perhaps we could run some type of weekly camp; there are a host of possibilities for this type of idea.
GMcC: How has local support been regarding the event, from the local government, to business owners, to residents?
MM: First, let me say this event would not be successful without the support of everyone in town. I am amazed at how many locals volunteer for this event every year. I once again go back to the year of the snowstorm and how it seemed like everyone in town pitched in some way to help us pull off the event.
Jimmy Bennett and Mayor Desiderio have been huge supporters of the event from day one. I cannot stress enough how lucky we are to have both of these individuals in our town. I honestly do not know what I would do without their help and support. They are a huge part of this event and its success.
We also owe a lot of our success to businesses, both local and national. On a local level, LaCosta does a wonderful job for us on Sunday. They have huge warmed tents and allow us to use the area for our ceremonies after the actual event. Sysco also steps up every year, providing free food for our participants. They donate the food and everything is free to our participants. It is really something special to see. In addition, we have face painters, magicians, and a band. Everyone comes out to make this a really special day for the kids.
GMcC: How do you think the Polar Bear Autism Run/Walk event has helped in regard to making Polar Bear Weekend more attractive and more successful?
MM: I have actually gotten quite a bit of feedback right here at the store from people about exactly that. We used to have people come in here all the time saying they loved Friday night’s events and the Plunge on Saturday was great, but they all wanted something to do on Sunday since it is held over a holiday weekend. That feedback is what led me to believe this event could actually become successful. I guess you could say the idea was born right here at the fish counter by my customers suggesting they wanted something else to do to round out the weekend.
As far as the event itself goes, I think it gives a sense of purpose to the entire weekend itself. It helps promote families coming into town because everyone knows somebody that has been affected by this condition. It gives everyone the chance to feel really good about the weekend knowing they helped a cause such as this become successful. You are going to see generations of families either walking or running together during the event. It feels great to know we are not only supporting our cause, but also providing an event that families can enjoy together.
To say that this event holds a special place in Mike’s heart is an understatement. He truly wants to help families that do not have the means to provide the proper care to their child who may be affected by autism. His main goals are to simply get the word out, to encourage parents to have their kids tested if they suspect they may have autism and help them learn communication skills that will allow them to be successful later in life.
The Polar Bear Run/Walk for Austism is a hallmark event in Sea Isle City and we would love to see you in town for it! The event takes place on Sunday, February 19 at 12:15pm. For the run, prizes are given to both men and women in various age classifications. The walk is a non competitive event. Onsite registration begins Saturday, February 18 at 10:45am at the tent located outside of LaCosta Lounge. Registrations will be held at the same location on Sunday, beginning at 9:00am. Registration fee on the day of the event is $25. For more information or to register, click here.