Prim and Karman Nietro moved all the way from Michigan to Manatee County to enroll their autistic son, Brian, in Pinnacle Academy.
Tim and Donna Neidert moved here from Fort Myers to enroll their son, Travis, at the same school.
Karen Alterisio and her family moved here from Maine to enroll her daughter, Catherine, who has a non-verbal learning disability, at Pinnacle.
I heard the same story over and over again Saturday of parental struggle, sacrifice and love to do whatever it takes to help a child with a bewildering disability.
There were 600 runners, and maybe 1,000 walkers, who turned out for the third-annual C.A.R.E. Be Aware of Autism 5K run and one-mile fun walk at Lakewood Ranch Main Street.
Although I have visited Pinnacle Academy several times, and knew that a number of parents from as far away as Tampa and St. Petersburg brought their children daily to the school, I had no idea that so many had pulled up roots and moved clear across the country to get here.
The nonprofit C.A.R.E. -- the Center for Autism Resources and Education -- helps families in the community faced with autism.
One of every 110 children is born with autism, according to Centers for Disease Control, but some believe the incidence is even greater than that.
Dr. Jose Polanco and his wife, Elizabeth, of Bradenton have four children, one of whom has autism.
Elizabeth said her son, now 7, did not speak his first word until he was 3.
“We were walking down the hall at Manatee Memorial Hospital when he grabbed my hand, looked up at me and said ‘Mama,’” Elizabeth said.
Her son is enrolled in Pinnacle and is now speaking in short sentences.
“You feel like, ‘why is it happening to me?’” Elizabeth said of a family’s struggle to cope with autism.
But looking around at the packed street Saturday, she said it’s a reminder that “you’re not alone.”
Elizabeth and many of the other family members said Saturday’s event was a blessing, helping to raise awareness and focus attention on the problem of autism.
Karen Alterisio said families eventually get past questions about why their child has autism and develop a focus on dealing with it.
“It’s our job to make sure we do the best we can for her,” Alterisio said of her daughter.
Many of the families dealing with autism wore buttons or T-shirts imprinted with their child’s photo.
Kitty and David Lakey wore T-shirts with the phrase “HISEYESSPEAK,” for the bright eyes of their 5-year-old autistic son, Jonathan.
“It’s really a struggle. It’s good to see other families in the community you don’t know,” Kitty Lakey said of the morale boost offered by Saturday’s event.
You couldn’t help but be impressed Saturday by all the folks who turned out for the run and the walk, especially those maybe not so athletic anymore, who finished a three-mile run puffing and a little purple faced.
But that was nothing compared to the families dealing with autism, and all the all-consuming love and devotion they have for their children.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.