Autism event is young dreamer’s vision

Teenager wants to spotlight human potential
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Leader Photo by Scott Williams Inside the Bridge the Gap agency in Shawano, McKenna Montour prepares signage for Wednesday’s autism awareness event at Shawano Community Middle School.

McKenna Montour is a dreamer, a planner and an organizer.

Although the Shawano County girl is just 15 years old, she is about to pull off a significant achievement by putting together a benefit for an organization that has special meaning to her.

Chad and Beth Montour’s daughter has organized an autism awareness event Wednesday to raise funds for Bridge the Gap, a Shawano-based organization for people with disabilities.

Making sure the benefit is well-planned and executed is important to McKenna because she hopes someday to find a career as an event planner.

And also because she has autism.

By personally handling nearly every detail of Wednesday’s event at Shawano Community Middle School, the town of Richmond teen aims to demonstrate that people with autism are capable of accomplishing difficult tasks, just like anyone else.

“You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it,” she said. “I think of stuff really big. So it kind of comes naturally.”

The benefit starting at 6 p.m., called “Steps For Autism Awareness,” features a sponsored walk-a-thon around the middle school athletic track. There will also be a raffle of gift baskets, a DJ playing music to entertain the crowd, and a kickball game on the infield to keep the fun going.

Lesley LaLuzerne, executive director of Bridge the Gap, said she is impressed at how well McKenna has worked independently and tended to each detail like an experienced event planner.

“The girl is just amazing,” LaLuzerne said. “She has come so far.”

McKenna, the oldest of three children, was diagnosed with autism at age 14. She struggles with verbal communication skills, but she is high functioning compared with others who live with more severe cases of autism.

She suffered a health setback earlier this year when she developed an autoimmune disease that affected her lungs. During a hospital stay that lasted nearly two months, she hatched the idea for “Steps for Autism Awareness.”

When she got discharged from the hospital in April, she went to work planning the event with an intuitive understanding of what needed to be done.

“I was just astounded,” her mother, Beth Montour, said. “I am so proud of where she has come.”

Overcoming her occasional difficulty verbalizing thoughts, McKenna first worked with school district officials to secure use of the middle school track. She then landed the DJ for entertainment, solicited gift basket donations for the raffle, and recruited participants for the walk-a-thon.

Anyone interested in showing support is invited to attend Wednesday’s event, whether joining the walk-a-thon, making a monetary donation or just cheering on the participants.

All proceeds will benefit Bridge the Gap, 1415 E. Green Bay St., a nonprofit agency that serves about 60 families affected by autism, and also provides assistance to people with other disabilities in area schools and elsewhere.

As a member of a teen group at Bridge the Gap, McKenna said she feels so grateful for the help she has received there that she decided to organize a benefit. She is proud of how much she has been able to accomplish in putting the event together herself.

“Sometimes I’m just, ‘Wow, I actually did this,” she said.

LaLuzerne said the benefit will not only raise funds for the organization, it will also accomplish McKenna’s goal of demonstrating the potential of people with autism.

Said LaLuzerne: “This just really shows that they can do anything that we can do — and sometimes better.”

AT A GLANCE

WHAT: Steps for Autism Awareness

WHEN: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Shawano Community Middle School, 1050 S. Union St., Shawano. Parking on Evergreen Street recommended.