By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – When Shrewsbury mom Stacey Levine Lavely witnessed her son’s touching performance of “Let It Go” in a local talent show in April, she was hit with inspiration.
During the show at Oak Middle School, Jagger, 14, who has autism, forgot some of the words and the audience joined in and helped him out. The heartwarming video was picked up by local and national news. It went viral, with more than 9 million views to date.
“After the variety show, an idea formed,” Lavely said. “I had always wanted to do something charitable. I bounced around the idea of creating an organization to encourage acceptance on a bigger scale.”
Lavely, who works as a volunteer coordinator at the Shrewsbury Council on Aging, was a member of the Family Advisory Board of the Autism Resource Center in West Boylston for 11 years as well as chair of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SPEDPAC) in Shrewsbury for eight.
“Jagger dove me headfirst into this world,” she said. “I like the term ‘differently abled.’ Kids with autism have challenges, but they have so many strengths, too. These kids are coming into society whether it is ready or not so we need to create a place for them.”
Since April, Lavely has been laying the groundwork for a new nonprofit organization, the Foundation for Autism Acceptance Worldwide (TFAAWW), “the foundation where building acceptance begins.” She is joined by Nassim Aoude, founder and CEO of Autism Behavioral Services in Grafton, and Dennis Vanasse, children’s book author and special education department head at South High Community School in Worcester.
The mission of the organization is “to provide compassion, inclusion and acceptance in communities around the world, by empowering others to give autism a voice.”
It is different from other autism organizations because, according to Lavely, “it looks outside to serve autism indirectly.”
Funds raised through the foundation will go toward grants to fund inclusion programs, recognition for people in the autism field, presentations at schools about acceptance, and inclusion programs in sports and educational opportunities.
One of the things the founders wanted to do was involve celebrities to promote their foundation.
“The reason we wanted to have celebrities is that local towns have only so much reach,” Lavely explained. “Celebrities can reach so much further.”
One of the first celebrities to become involved was Vee Vrsatyl Meadows, who had recently won indi.com’s National Child Awareness Month (NCAM) Challenge with his rap song and video “Born This Way” about autism. The $50,000 prize is donated to a children’s charity of the winner’s choice. Meadows donated his winnings to the Autism Society of America.
Other celebrities who have helped promote the foundation include Eric “Bobo” Correa of Cypress Hill, reality star Jonathan Cheban and Justina Valentine of MTV’s “Wild ‘N Out.”
“The foundation has taken off,” Lavely said. “It’s gotten much bigger much quicker than we thought it would. It just all came together – stars aligned. It was the right place at the right time.”
One of TFAAWW’s initiatives is the “Pie in the Face Challenge,” in which supporters take a pie in the face to raise money for autism acceptance. Lavely said they chose whipped cream because many people on the autism spectrum have sensory issues. The goal is to have participants experience how those with autism might feel during the challenge.
The foundation also recently held its first annual holiday fundraiser in Connecticut which included celebrity guests Cheban, Parrish Smith of hip hop group EPMD, Cappadonna of the Wu-Tang Clan and Connecticut Senator Heather Sommers.
“It’s not surprising people are embracing this,” Lavely said. “There are not many people without some connection to autism. If life is a tapestry, we need to weave them into the rich fabric of life.”
For more information about the foundation, visit www.autismfoundation.org. To donate, click on the “donate” tab.