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By Vanessa Showalter
OCSS: What is your biggest challenge as the executive director of TACA?
Ackerman: TACA’s biggest challenge is meeting the needs of the 1 in 88 families affected by autism. TACA currently serves almost 30,000 families and add approximately 400 new families a month. Sadly funding for autism has not kept pace to meet the needs, it is the least funded disability affecting the most children in the U.S. today.
OCSS: How can TACA help?
Ackerman: Eight-two percent of the families we serve have children 17 or younger. Our goal is to be there for families that suspect autism or receive the diagnosis, so that they can engage the best practices immediately. We know how to help families throughout the autism journey into adulthood. Families helping families with autism, sharing information and best practices is empowering and life changing. Progress can be possible for anyone living with autism.
OCSS: Why did you start this non-profit?
Ackerman: In September 1999, my husband and I knew something was not going well with our son Jeff, but we would have never guessed it was autism. Following that fateful visit with the neurologist, we visited many other professionals including medical doctors, speech pathologists, audiologists, and behaviorists. Refusing to give up on our son, my husband and I spent hundreds of hours talking to any and all parents of a child diagnosed with autism, reading dozens of books, watching countless hours of educational videos, and of course, surfing the internet constantly. The early days of our son’s diagnosis were frustrating, and little help was available.
We started TACA based on the need of families looking for help. Both my husband and I wanted the company of other families going through the same struggles, for social gatherings, and to share information especially research and treatments options as they became available. TACA began with a small handful of families in our living room in 2000. Our family and early TACA members found the resources to meet the needs of many families. Today, TACA serves families across the country, and it all started in an Orange County living room. Today we are leading the way in providing Real Help Now to families living with autism.
OCSS: How have you handled raising money in this down economy?
Ackerman: The families we serve do not pay any membership or subscription fees. We rely solely on donations from corporate and individual donors to help families. Every corporation and individual seems to be challenged by the down-turn in the economy. At TACA, we have to scale back to survive the tough times, but did so without cutting any necessary services. We, like every organization, are in desperate need of additional support to meet the ongoing challenges of families living with autism.
OCSS: Why is autism awareness critical especially now?
Ackerman: Autism awareness is crucial. With the recent explosion in the number of children being diagnosed if you don’t know someone affected by autism you soon will. It takes a community to help children and their families.
OCSS: Your biggest fundraiser of the year is coming up…why is ANTE UP FOR AUTISM such an important event?
Ackerman: TACA does not fundraise from the families we serve, some have the resources but most of them do not. TACA’s Ante Up For Autism reaches out to individuals and corporate friends to come out and show their support for their neighbors and friends while having an amazing time.
OCSS: I hear a bunch of celebrities, sports stars and professional poker players attend/support this event – who is coming this year?
Ackerman: We are honored to have the support of so many celebrities and athletes. This year, actor Johnathon Schaech and singer/actress Kate Voegele are co-hosting the event. On September 22, our goal is to raise money for TACA families while having a blast. Our “Gala and Casino Night” includes a VIP red carpet entrance, cocktails, tournament poker, live & silent auction and tips from poker stars. In addition to Johnathon and Kate, confirmed celebrity guests include: reality TV star Alexis Bellino of “The Real Housewives of OC,” actor Todd Stashwick, actress Shanna Moakler, actress/TV host Nicky Whelan, actor Nicholas Gonzalez, actor Ronnie Blevins, actor/producer David Deluise and actor/professional poker player Joseph Reitman. TACA is extremely fortunate as last year we raised more than $250,000.
OCSS: What would be your advice to a new family who just found out their child has been diagnosed with autism?
Ackerman: Newly diagnosed families often do not typically receive any direction or support. At TACA we know how these families feel. We also know how to guide families from confusion to positive action on behalf of their children. TACA has no-cost educational resource guides, one-on-one parent mentors, support, and a community ready to help you on your journey. For families in crisis, struggling in their home -know one thing: autism is treatable. The sooner you connect with TACA the better for your child.
To purchase tickets to ANTE UP FOR AUTISM, please visit www.anteupforautism.org