NATIONAL REPORT—”What will happen to them when I’m gone?” It’s a fearful thought that may cross the mind of a parent or relative who is the primary caregiver of a person with autism. There is no easy answer.
Although there have been strides in autism research and consciousness over the years, the day-to-day for families remains challenging as they continuously advocate for their loved one’s access to quality healthcare and education, as well as emotional support, tolerance and acceptance in order provide a life for them. In moments of difficulty, there is also grace and joy. It arrives in fits and starts. A hug from an autistic child with acute sensory issues can feel like winning the lottery.
Autism Speaks is one of the organizations leading the charge to educate, advocate and fundraise for the causes, prevention, treatments and cure of autism. The group’s annual “Light It Up Blue” campaign—where major landmarks and local businesses use lighting to turn their buildings blue on Autism Awareness Day—seeks to bring attention to and create a dialogue around this issue.
“It started out with the United Nations sanctioning April 2 as Autism Awareness Day. We wanted to spread awareness of the joy of these individuals and their abilities, and our color is blue. The Empire State building partnered with us back in 2007 for our first effort and, from there, one of our cofounders Susan Wright, saw an opportunity to spread awareness globally,” explained Anne Juaire, director, corporate development, Autism Speaks. “It was an easy turnkey way for iconic landmarks to get involved and, now after many years, we’re finding ways our communities, neighbors and school systems can help shine a light on autism.”
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show about 1 in 68 American children have been identified as being on the autism spectrum. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S., with the condition costing a family more than $60,000 a year in medical expenses, lost income, special education, residential care and other services, according to Autism Speaks.
Three years ago, HHM partnered with Autism Speaks to spread awareness about the disorder to staff and customers at 115 hotel properties nationally through indoor and outdoor property lighting in the nonprofit’s signature blue hue. Last year, the hotel management company added fundraising to the mix and surpassed its goal of $50,000 and garnered more than $90,000 in donations. This year, they’ve set their sights on achieving more than $150,000 in donations.
“Earth View is our community-giving program and organization across all properties. When you have a platform, you can increase awareness. If you give money and time, you are able to raise awareness so others can give and money and time to contribute in a broader way than individually,” shared HHM CEO Naveen Kakarla. “Autism Speaks allowed us to raise awareness while contributing hours and raising capital. In the end, it’s one of those issues that is not understood enough or talked about enough. That caught our attention and we came together to decide what we could do about it.”
“HHM worked with our national lighting partners and utilized resources through our website where individuals, groups or companies can find information about the campaign, from printing out posters to ordering blue light bulbs, social messaging and creative images to spread the word,” Juaire said.
When the hotels in HHM’s portfolio turned blue, people were talking, and HHM’s staff was well prepared to facilitate meaningful conversations and share educational materials during the month-long campaign.
“We trained everyone internally, teaching associates how to answer questions about why the hotel was illuminated blue. The experience drove a wonderful conversation and we all thought about folks who are impacted by autism. It did a lot for our internal organization and was really powerful,” Kakarla said. “We tried $50,000 and then $90,000 and, fast forward to 2016, we decided to expand the partnership and do fundraising. All of the properties found their own way to contribute through awareness and dollars—everything from sales blitzes and raffles to carnivals and black-tie galas. There were 115 different events, some were a month long and some were for one big night.”
Staff at each property brought their own creativity and spirit to the campaign. In Washington, DC, luxury boutique property The Graham Georgetown hosted a blue-carpet gala on its rooftop—featuring views of the city’s monuments and landmarks, while chefs at The Rittenhouse in Philadelphia baked cookies and donated 20% to charity, according to Kakarla.
“It wasn’t just about lighting up our hotel or having a sign. It was about how many different parts of the hotel and guest experience can we tastefully impact without being in anyone’s face,” Kakarla said.
“HHM’s ability to be ingenious in terms of what fits for them and their industry was great to see and they were wonderful to work with. They are kind of a bright, shining star. Everyone knows somebody who is affected by autism. HHM took the campaign and ran with it,” Juaire said. “It was really a blessing to be able to work with them and see them become creative. It was rewarding to see a national company coordinate all of it and seeing how many people stepped up. Every single person we spoke with had a job and responsibility and pulled their weight.”
So far, HHM has raised $105,000 and they are still going in terms of fundraising. In addition, the company has given 1,000-plus hours to the effort, including countless hours talking about autism to bring customers into the fold, according to Kakarla.
“For the campaign, you have 15 groups of leaders who collectively marshaled about 5,000 associates. They stepped forward, formed a steering committee and provided tools, ranging from email footers to puzzle pieces that would be pinned on lapels of staff at every hotel around the country. We did it without formal use of our PR firm or internal communications and marketing professionals. It was done from the heart by folks who made it very personal, and I found that to be the most powerful outcome,” Kakarla concluded.