The origin of one of the greatest success stories in the Central Massachusetts Autism Community can be traced to the Silver Bullet.
Eleven years ago, Julie Atherton, captain of Team Strength, and her husband Shawn, moved to a new house in Mendon. One day while installing new floors, they had a surprise visitor: a friendly eleven-year-old named Jeffrey. They were immediately charmed when the young man skipped out on the small talk and got right to the heart of the matter by identifying the distinctive Coors Light product in Shawn’s hand. From there, Jeffrey and the Athertons became almost inseparable. The fact Jeffrey has autism only bolstered their bond further.
“Bottom line: Julie just included Jeff from day one,” Jeffrey’s father Joe notes. For Joe, a single father raising three sons, the Athertons proved to be a Godsend. Their dedication to Jeffrey provided him breaks he otherwise wouldn’t have received when they invited Jeffrey to cookouts, family outings, and even on vacations to places such as Myrtle Beach and Virginia. “Julie is like an aunt to my son and, to me, she is like a sister,” says Joe.
Eleven years later, Julie helps to run Milford Hardwood Floors, a highly successful family business that keeps her extremely busy. Meanwhile, Jeffrey is preparing to make the difficult transition into adult services. His supportive family and clerical job skills acquired at places such as EMC and the National Guard Headquarters have prepared him well for future success. The love he receives from Julie has, as well.
Julie’s love for Jeffrey is evident with Team Strength, a group she has captained the past three years for our annual Community 5K for Autism Awareness. Team Strength has become our biggest team, both in terms of member volume and monies raised for the Center. This year will be no different, as Team Strength will likely have over sixty participants.
Much like the bond between Jeffrey and the Athertons, Team Strength has come to being and blossomed organically. Julie has recruited friends and family who then recruit their friends and family and so on. These team members, however, go well above and beyond running in the race and soliciting pledges. Each Team Strength member also contributes a themed raffle basket to be auctioned off at a Team Strength event prior to the 5K. This year alone, people can help Team Strength help the Center by attending events like a bowling party at Pinz in Milford, a Zumba-thon, a Music Together event, and their signature happening, a gigantic party at the Endzone in Mendon that is likely to raise thousands of dollars.
For many of us raising a child with autism, the thought of having a person like Julie Atherton enter and remain in our child’s life would be like a dream come true. The fact she has enriched the life of one of our own so much not out of any personal monetary gain or familial duty but sheer love can give us all hope. Autism does not have to mean alone or isolated.