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Each day, as an employee of Make-A-Wish America, I read incredible stories about children battling life-threatening illnesses who get to have their most heartfelt wish granted. From the hundreds of comments I read daily, I see what a difference a wish can make – to the child, to the family, to the community. I encourage you to visit wish.org or our Facebook Page to read about the children whose lives we change.

One of my favorite wish stories is that of four-year-old Lauren. While Lauren bravely fights cancer, she relies on her bunny blanket, a gift from her aunt and uncle, to provide her comfort. When asked what her one true wish was, she wished to give. She envisioned every child in the hospital with a bunny blanket like hers, that she hand-delivered.

While there are many ways you can help grant wishes, I’d like to share a new opportunity with you. It only takes a minute and it won’t cost you a dime.

Straight Talk Wireless is encouraging consumers to go to their local Walmart to show their support for Make-A-Wish by taking part in a one-minute demonstration of a Straight Talk Wireless Android smart phone. For every shopper who participates, Straight Talk will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, with the ultimate goal of $1,000,000.

The event will take place over four consecutive Saturdays starting September 22, 2012 at over 3,000 participating Walmarts under the banner “One Minute One Million.” You can find a participating Walmart near you by visiting OneMinuteOneMillion.com

I hope that you can take a minute out of your Saturday in the next month to help us grant even more wishes for deserving children!

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I remember the moment, as clear as day. I was at a stoplight behind a car which sported an autism awareness magnet on its rear bumper. I thought to myself, “Why do I see these so often? I don’t know anyone with autism.”

Fate has a funny way, you see. It couldn’t have been weeks later when I found myself attending a kick-off luncheon for the 2006 Autism Speaks’ Long Island Walk Now for Autism. I knew almost nothing when I walked in the ballroom of the hotel where the event was being hosted. By the time I left, I felt a need to contribute to make a difference – what began as an offer to volunteer resulted in me embarking on a new career that subsequently changed my life.

When I began working at Autism Speaks in 2006, 1 in 166 children were being diagnosed with autism. That number is now 1 in 110. Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S. and more children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes & cancer combined. There is also no cure or medical detection.

I have heard thousands of stories and had the pleasure of getting to know countless individuals and families who live with autism each and every day. People who have autism are some of the bravest and hardest working individuals I have ever encountered. One of my favorite parts of my job involves sharing stories, submitted by people who have autism and their families, on our website and blog. Some of the stories are happy; we hear from the father of a boy with autism, who scored a touchdown during his second season of Pop Warner football. Some of the stories leave me feeling that the world isn’t fair – that people who have autism don’t deserve to struggle in the ways that they do. But most importantly, I am reminded that these people need your help.

April is Autism Awareness Month. It kicks off tomorrow, April 1, when iconic buildings and landmarks (think Empire State Building, Niagara Falls, Fenway Park) around the world are being lit up in blue to “shine a light on autism.” April 2 is the third annual World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD). Events held around the world that day help to increase and develop world knowledge of autism. Additionally, WAAD celebrates the unique talents and skills of persons with autism.

So why does any of this matter? Quite simply, people who have autism and their loved ones NEED YOU.

I know what you’re thinking – everyone is asking for money these days and who am I to tell you that this is where your money needs to go. Well, here’s something that should make you reconsider. Beginning tomorrow, your donation at autismspeaks.org will be matched. If you give $5, a generous benefactor will turn that into $10. Your $50 becomes $100.

$5 – it’s a (delicious) caramel macchiato at Starbucks (but if I can skip one day, you can, too.)

But … money isn’t everything. There are other ways you can help make a difference, beginning tomorrow.

* Light It Up Blue by wearing blue to work on Friday. Be sure to tell people that you are raising awareness for autism!

* Get involved electronically! Become a fan of Autism Speaks on Facebook (www.autismspeaks.org/facebook) and create a “birthday cause” to raise funds online. Follow us on Twitter too!

* Shop at one of the many awesome retailers who support Autism Speaks in April.

* Show compassion and understanding. A child acting out in public may not be badly behaved – s/he might have autism. Give families the benefit of the doubt. Additionally, if you know someone with a family member who has autism, stop by and ask how you can help out!

* Wear our pin. The Autism Speaks puzzle piece is swiftly becoming known as the worldwide symbol of autism awareness. Wear your pin to show your support for all our families around the globe who live with autism every day.

* Walk with us! Walk Now for Autism Speaks at an event near you. Visit http://www.walknowforautismspeaks.org/ to find a Walk in your area – create a Walk team, volunteer on Walk day and have fun while helping to raise funds.

* Run for the cause. Join one of our Autism Speaks marathon teams in New York, Chicago, Orlando and more.

* Volunteer for one of our upcoming special events! From golf outings to concerts to galas, Autism Speaks can always use extra hands to assist in the execution of a variety of fundraising events. To volunteer, please e-mail our Special Events Department at eventvolunteers@autismspeaks.org.

* Host an event for Autism Speaks! Charge a small fee at your next happy hour, birthday party or other event and have the proceeds benefit Autism Speaks. Get a group of your friends and colleagues together for a good time for a good cause! E-mail events@autismspeaks.org for more information.

* Help pass critical autism legislation in your state or nationally. Visit http://www.autismvotes.org/ to become an advocate – from your computer. Keep the pressure on Congress to end insurance discrimination against children with autism.

* Learn the warning signs of autism. Early diagnosis can make a lifetime of difference.

Understand that this is important. If you don’t know someone who has autism today, you soon will. I hope that this April you will join me in raising much needed awareness. 

Thank you – from me, all of my wonderful co-workers and volunteers, and the many amazing people whose lives touch me on a daily basis. You can, and will, make a difference beginning now.

I have always been a philanthropic person – while I don’t have much to give financially, I have always been interested in supporting charitable organizations with what little money I have and moreso, my time. When I was younger, I was mostly aware of larger organizations such as Make-a-Wish and St. Jude’s (both of which still continue to benefit so many people). I volunteered for a few years at the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital and think its Child Life program is remarkable; I was so blessed to spend time with children and families and hope that anyone who has a sick child will benefit from a program as good as MUSC’s.

I stumbled upon Autism Speaks (the organization I work for), knowing virtually nothing about autism. I attended a Walk Now for Autism kick-off event and immediately wanted to become involved – my desire to become a volunteer translated into a full-time job. Seeing the families that are affected by autism has further driven my passion for the cause.

Working for a non-profit organization is a double-edged sword. While most people who work for non-profits are generally philanthropic in nature, you are trained to advocate and fundraise for your cause, primarily. When the economy forces people with already limited needs to have even less, you find it difficult to ask people to support “yet another cause.”

I’d have a hard time finding a charity that I don’t think is worth supporting. Unfortunately, some of the best charitable organizations are small and don’t get the support they deserve. One such is Lauren’s First and Goal, a cause that is very dear to me.

I’d like you to meet Lauren, the lucky girl pictured above with Orlando Bloom, who she had the pleasure of meeting recently. Lauren is the recently 12-year-old niece of two of my closest friends; she is also a brain tumor survivor who has been living with a diagnosis of multiple brain and spinal cord tumors, Neurofibramatosis and Evan’s Syndrome, since she was nine months old. Read more about Lauren and her story here. Lauren is one of the most sunny, optimistic, unique, loving and courageous people you will ever get the chance to meet. How many 12-year-old girls do you know of that ask for a birthday party themed after “The Office,” after all?!

Lauren’s First and Goal is a charitable organization created to raise funds to support pediatric brain tumor research, support local pediatric cancer services, provide financial assistance to families living with a pediatric cancer diagnosis and to raise public awareness regarding pediatric brain tumors. The fund is supported primarily by Lauren’s First and Goal Football Camp, a non-contact, one day instructional clinic taught by experienced Division I, II and III college coaches. Since the Foundation’s inception five years ago, over 5,300 high school players have attended the camp and over half a million dollars has been raised to support research towards a cure for pediatric brain tumors.

Everyone knows that times are tough – but when it comes down to it, we are all luckier than we think we are. Having volunteered at a Children’s Hospital taught me how optimistic terminally ill children and their families are – it also reminded me what I can do without to help others.

Take the money you would spend on your morning’s Starbucks, that extra pint of beer at happy hour or the cab you took instead of the subway and donate it. I guarantee the benefit you are giving someone else will certainly outweigh what you are giving up.

If you can’t donate, help raise awareness. Awareness is the key to fundraising – join the Facebook group for Lauren’s First and Goal; link the First and Goal website to your Facebook page.

It’s a beautiful Friday here in New York and hearing Lauren’s story of meeting Orlando Bloom reminded me that great people DO exist in this world. I’m proud to know so many people who put others first and do what they can to make a difference.

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