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Puzzles help raise awareness, funds

Megan Doyle | Monday, December 7, 2009

Students and families from around the Notre Dame community pieced together puzzles to raise awareness and funds for autism in a puzzle competition Sunday afternoon sponsored by Special Friends, Ryan Hall and the Class of 2011.

Approximately 75 people competed in individual and team competitions for prizes including gift cards and a Nerf gun. The Special Friends Club pairs Notre Dame students with autistic children in South Bend and Granger, and many of the families and students involved with the club could be found gathered around puzzles in North Dining Hall.

Special Friends coordinator Lauren Schmitt said the event was oriented both towards raising awareness and fundraising.

“The symbol of autism is a puzzle piece because puzzles really help kids with autism work on their fine motor skills and focus their attention,” Schmitt said. “The event uses this symbol to raise awareness and to help fundraising for this cause.”

The money collected from entry fees and ticket sales will be donated to Special Friends and to the Sonya Ansari Center for Autism at the Logan Center in South Bend.

According to Ryan Hall president Courtney Vargas, Schmitt and Kayla Coggins, both residents of Ryan Hall, approached the Hall Council at the beginning of the year to find out how Ryan could get involved with Special Friends.

“The special part of the puzzle competition is that it is a combination of families from the community and students from Notre Dame,” Vargas said. “I think that it is a great event, and I hope that this is something that our dorm could be involved with in the future.”

Students from Notre Dame have a history supporting causes such as special needs and autism. Special Friends in particular is tied to a seminar on autism and early development taught by Professor Thomas Whitman.

Special Friends vice president Sean Kickham assembled a puzzle while discussing his involvement with the club.

“I volunteered with autistic kids in high school, and when Special Friends started up two years ago, I knew that it was a good option for me to keep up that work,” he said.

The partnerships between the kids and Notre Dame students are the most integral part of the club’s work.

South Bend mother Deanna Finfrock watched her four-year-old son Nolan play games with volunteers from Ryan Hall and his Special Friend partner Coggins.

“Nolan has a great time with the college kids,” Finfrock said. “These students are incredibly patient, and I love to see him having such a good time here.”

Finfrock said Nolan was recently diagnosed with autism and free events like the puzzle competition are the perfect option for her family in the midst of high medical costs. The programs sponsored by Special Friends focus on community participation from families like Nolan’s.

“I was drawn to Special Friends because I love to work with kids, and Professor Whitman’s autism class got me interested in the group,” Coggins said. “I think that the student interaction with the kids is what really makes the work that Special Friends does a great idea.”

During Disabilities Week in the spring, Special Friends will be hosting an autism conference featuring a Yale neurologist who will discuss some of his recent research on this handicap and raise awareness for ways to help the cause.