When you want to help others you have to get out there and, as Nike says, just do it.
Connor Cunningham, a junior at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, certainly knows how to make a big difference. For his generous efforts, he was named Outstanding Student Volunteer by the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.
Connor, 16, has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Throughout the last school year, he has talked with more than 500 children and teachers at Sunny Isles Beach K-8 about autism and the importance of tolerance.
His presentations to groups of third- and fourth-grade students, and middle school students, included facts, personal stories, humor and games. He sometimes spoke to three groups in one day.
“I feel it’s really important, because getting the word out early to younger kids can make things a lot easier for children and adolescents like myself. It helps create awareness,” Connor said in email. “I’m so grateful to everyone at CARD for this award and the support and encouragement they give to me and so many other kids and families.”
The students always had the chance to ask questions. Connor’s mom, Kitty Dumas, said he would start presentations by talking about things he has in common with his younger audience, such as art, video games, and favorite movies.
Through the success of his talks, Connor started an organization he calls “Stand in My Shoes,” which he is hoping can grow into a speakers’ bureau that can be a school resource. He also wants to launch a podcast and an online forum for kids on the autism spectrum to express creativity and connect with other kids with autism. Connor also spoke at the UM-CARD gala.
“We were absolutely delighted to recognize Connor with this award,” said Michael Alessandri, executive director of UM-CARD in a release. “His openness in sharing his journey with autism with other students will undoubtedly build more tolerance and acceptance for neurodiversity and ultimately improve lives.”
“I enjoy public speaking, and autism is part of what makes me who I am,” Connor said. “I received help, but in elementary school I was never given instruction or advice from someone who personally went through the same trials as I had. I had close friends, but most people did not understand what I was experiencing or what it felt like.”
The program that allowed Connor to get started was developed by the Sunny Isles Beach Parent Teacher Student Association. It is funded by a grant from the National PTA, the Sunny Isles Beach PTSA, and Officer Patty Gonzalez, the liaison officer for the Sunny Isles Beach Police Department, who is very involved with the school, Dumas said.
UM-CARD Associate Director Diane Adreon said Connor is a role model and an inspiration for many young people and their families.
“Connor Cunningham is a young man who has worked hard to find ways to succeed in school and life, while coping with the challenges of having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),” she said in a release. “His program Stand in My Shoes is making a difference in our community. It’s helping us build a community of children and adults who are more tolerant and supportive of individuals with ASD.”
Throughout the year in his talks at Sunny Isles Beach K-8, Connor would often ask kids if they knew someone with autism. Many hands would go up. He would then listen to the stories and everyone would learn.
“At this point everyone at Sunny Isles is like family,” he said. “I’m really grateful to them for giving me this opportunity. The kids were great, and a lot of fun. They listened and had a lot of compassion. I think it also helps other kids who feel different for whatever reason to hear from someone who’s been there.”
Driving for a cause
Applications are now being accepted in the Homestead-Miami Speedway charitable outreach program, Driving for a Cause. Previous recipients of these grants include the Boys and Girls Club of Broward County; Branches, formerly known as South Florida Urban Ministries; the Farmworker Association; Homestead South Dade Kiwanis Foundation; the Russell Life Skills and Reading Foundation; Miami South BMX; and Start off Smart.
All requests must be postmarked by 5 p.m. July 31. More information is online at www.homesteadmiamispeedway.com/DrivingForACause where the application can be downloaded.
The Homestead-Miami Speedway’s Driving for a Cause uses the popularity of motorsports “to focus public attention and funding on South Florida youth and educational programs.” The program has a mission to make a lasting impact on our community and helps support growth through volunteerism.
Recipients are honored during the pre-race ceremonies before the Ford EcoBoost 400, NASCAR’s championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. Applications will be reviewed and all charities will be notified of the grant decisions by Sept. 1. Write to email@example.com if you have more questions.
Learn some new skills in watercolor technique at two upcoming mid-summer classes at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
Instructor Ricardo Aberle will lead one session, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., July 25, with a focus on color mixing and composition. You can bring your current work in progress or a blank canvas to the workshop for tips. Drawing and basic watercolor experience are required for Ricardo’s Summer Watercolor Workshop. The fee is $100 for members and $155 for nonmembers.
The next class is Tropical Fruits in Watercolors with instructor Hillary Parker at 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., July 30. This session will focus on painting edible tropical fruits grown at Fairchild and elsewhere in South Florida. Students will work on watercolor washes and form as they sample delicious fruit in class. Knowledge of basic botanical watercolor skills is recommended. The fee is $75 for members and $100 for nonmembers.
Registration for both classes is online at www.fairchildgarden.org/Education/Adults or by calling 305-663-8094. Fairchild is at 10901 Old Cutler Rd. in Coral Gables.
Everyone is invited to enjoy a fun luncheon with entertainment, starting with a social hour at 11 a.m., Aug. 12, at the Killian Palms Country Club, 9950 SW 104th St.
The host is New Neighbors Club of South Dade which has a mission to help new residents, and those making changes, get to know friends through interesting club activities. The August luncheon will include a special performance by David Meulemans, a popular leading man in Florida’s musical theater scene. He is known for singing jazz and pop music, as well as cabaret theater selections.
Reservations are required by Aug. 6. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-595-0213. The cost is $26. To learn more about this active group and its many programs, visit http://newneighborssouthdade.webs.com/
If you have news for this column, please send it to Christina Mayo at email@example.com.