Dinner out raises awareness and funds for autism

Families packed the restaurant with more queuing in line to get in. A trio of girls giggled gleefully while having their faces painted. At the next table, children danced colorful balloon animals through the air. Amidst the palpable joy, heaping piles of pancakes, sizzling mozzarella sticks and bubbling apple crisps were delivered to tables.

“I have never seen it like this,” said a Denny’s server. “This is amazing.”

Though the recipients of these meals came from all different walks of life, they were united by a common culture. Each person in the restaurant that night was touched in some way by the autism spectrum disorder. And all ate at Denny’s located at 5645 South University Drive in Davie on Sept. 27 to raise funds for the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, known as the UM-NSU CARD.

“This is a wonderful night,” said patron Bruce Blitman, who has worked with the UM-NSU CARD group as a family and circuit mediator. “Not everyone can afford to give money, but a lot of people contribute their time and services and can participate in an event like this to raise awareness.”

The event was held in honor of a family that was allegedly attacked after trying to enjoy a similar evening recently.

Richard Bennett, his wife Sonia and sons Nicholas, 3, and Samuel, 5, who has autism, were eating dinner at the Boynton Beach Olive Garden when another patron complained about Samuel’s behavior. Within a few minutes, the argument turned physical and ended with Paul Blankfield, 36, leaving the restaurant in handcuffs.

Though this experience is an extreme example, other parents who have children with autism said they can relate. It starts with looks or stares, said Davie resident Kelly Myers. Her daughter Hannah, 12, has autism. Myers can remember several incidents while eating out over the years — the most vivid when Hannah was three years old.

“We were at a restaurant and this woman started making rude comments and pretty soon I was screaming at her, too. She just had no idea,” Myers said.

During the fundraiser at Denny’s, incidents like these seemed like a distant memory. Restaurant owner Adam Jacobs said everyone is welcome at his restaurant.

“Autism is a complex disorder and we are proud to support such an important cause and wonderful organization,” Jacobs said. “It is important that our customers know we welcome all our guests.”

In addition to providing the venue, Jacobs’ restaurant also donated 20 percent of the evening’s revenue to the UM-NSU CARD.

The non-profit group, housed at NSU, provides free family support, outreach and educational support services to children and adults of all levels of intellectual functioning, who have autism and autistic-like disabilities, deaf-blindness and pervasive developmental disorders. The group serves more than 5,400 families currently in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

The UM-NSU CARD has worked with Denny’s, Pizza Loft and other local restaurants to host Autism Awareness Nights and organizers said they hope to schedule several more in the future.

Guest Writer:  Andra Liwag

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