Seniors Go the Distance for Autism

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Nathan Holmes spent part of his childhood in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. living next door to someone with autism who was the same age as him.

John Kenny remembers spending time in his uncle’s New Jersey chiropractor’s office, where his uncle often saw autistic patients.

Both of them remember the difficulties that the families of children with disabilities go through on a daily basis.

And now both of them are trying to do something about it.

The pair has teamed up with the non-profit Developmental Disabilities Institute (DDI) in Smithtown, Long Island to try to raise money for the institute, which specializes in providing services to people with autism – and they have an interesting way of raising attention about the cause.

The two friends plan to walk from the Brooklyn Bridge to Montauk Point Lighthouse at the very tip of Long Island –an eight-day trip that will cover 128 miles. They’ll start on May 28, the day after Memorial Day, and continue until June 4. Four others from St. John’s – seniors Rita Rausch, Michael Sardone, Morgan Zajkowski, and John Kenny’s brother Liam Kenny, a junior, are joining them on the trek.

The group is currently soliciting money for DDI from the St. John’s community and other sources by selling sponsorships, sweatshirts and accepting monetary donations. DDI has a page on its web site dedicated to the walk (ddiny.org/liwalk) and a Facebook page to raise awareness.

It’s a unique way to raise money for a cause, one that people at DDI say they haven’t done before.

“It wasn’t quite shock [hearing of Kenny and Holmes’ plan], but it was close to it,” said DDI’s director of development Dan Rowland. “A happy kind of shock, that two guys would think of doing such a thing for us was just wonderful.”

The idea isn’t shocking to anybody who knows Holmes, however. He developed an appreciation for long walks when his father used to take him hiking, and that affinity rubbed off on John Kenny when they studied together in Europe for the Spring 2011 semester.

“It’s such a Nate idea,” Liam Kenny said.

While they were in Salamanca, Spain, John Kenny and Holmes, along with two others, set out to walk from the University of Salamanca to the next city over, Zamora, a distance of about 50 miles in two days of walking.

The walk brought them past small farms, remote villages and lots of cows. But they never made it to Zamora – exhaustion, bad weather, and a warning from locals about wolves coming out after dark led them to hitchhike to the nearest hotel after 25 miles, after which they took a bus home the next morning.

(Full disclosure: I was one of the group of four that embarked on that Quixotic journey, and the threat of
being eaten by wolves was all too real. We loaded our pockets with rocks as the sun went down, just in case.)

But instead of dampening their striding spirit, the experience made them want to do it again, this time with an incentive to make it to the finish line.

“You really see things that you never would ordinarily,” Holmes said.

They settled on DDI, Holmes and Kenny said, partly because of Kenny’s work with the group at St. John’s through the Executive-in-Residence Program in the Tobin College of Business, and because the institute’s size meant it wouldn’t be overwhelmed in planning the event. DDI reported nearly $94 million in income in 2010, the last year for which tax returns are publicly available, and Rowland said the institute serves around 5,000 people with disabilities.

The money Kenny and Holmes raise will go to a project called “Bring Our Children Home.” That program seeks to bring autistic children of Long Island residents who are being cared for in places far away back into a group home run by DDI in Huntington.

The route the two have carved out will take them from the Brooklyn Bridge to St. John’s on the first day, a journey of about 11 miles, and then to a hotel in Garden City, for a total of more than 22 miles in the first day. From there, Kenny and Holmes will make stops in Mineola, Huntington, Smithtown, Medford, Westhampton Beach, Bridgehampton and downtown Montauk before reaching Montauk Point Lighthouse on June 4, according to a copy of their walk
itinerary obtained by the Torch.

The trip won’t be without its physical challenges – the group will walk more than 20 miles in three separate days, and Holmes said they’ll bring safety
vests when walking late at night. But those challenges, for them, pale in comparison to the benefits the trip can bring to DDI.

“I thought the idea was absolutely amazing,” Liam Kenny said. “I think it’s going to be tougher than we think, but I think it was something that’s a great
idea and something that will spread across the island, not just St. John’s kids.”

The stop in Huntington will show John Kenny, Holmes and co. what their money is going toward – the rebuilding and renovation of a school run by DDI so it can accompany the 24 extra children it will be taking in as a result of the “Bring Our Children Home” program.

Teaming up with DDI has made the logistics of the long walk easier, Holmes said, because Rowland is setting up places for them to stay along the way – at
either its schools or the homes of families served by the institute.

“We were telling them that we had camping gear and tents,” Holmes said. “They just said they could set up places for us to stay. That seemed like a better idea.”

John Kenny said he was unsure if he would get a response from DDI when he sent them a letter pitching the idea of the walk last month. But Rowland, who drove the first part of the trip with Kenny and Holmes yesterday, said the desire of the walking group to spend its post-graduation time raising money for charity reflected well on St. John’s and the Vincentian values the University espouses, and was an easy thing to say yes to.

“The thing that struck me is these guys want to do this act of kindness, this act of acknowledging all the families that had children with autism, and they want to use their transition time to do something for others,” Rowland said. “I can’t think of a better way to express the values they’ve picked up through their educational career and capping off their years of St. John’s. I think it speaks well of them, but I also think it speaks very well of the University, that the University prepares students like Nate and John to be able to make a decision like this.”