For Damon Casseday, autism isn’t just something he feels passionately about – it’s something that strikes close to home. His son, Dustin, has autism and upon receiving a diagnosis, he looked to the community for help with the adjustment.
While Damon was able to find some other parents to talk to, he noticed something was off.
“You know, there are meetings and support groups for people with other problems, like AA for alcoholics”, said Casseday. “But there was nothing in this area like that for families with children or other members of their family with autism to meet and talk and bond together.”
So upon discovering this, Casseday and several of his friends, spanning multiple professional backgrounds, founded the Dustin Damon Casseday Autism Foundation. After getting the organization off the ground over the last few months, the foundation held its first fundraiser on Sunday at the Carmichaels VFW.
Several hundred people were in attendance for the fundraiser, which impressed many of the staff and event organizers.
Greene County Commissioner Blair Zimmerman, who attended the event, said that the turnout did not surprise him in the least bit.
“Events like this is what Greene County is about,” said Zimmerman. “People come out to support their neighbors and support causes like this. It makes me really proud to be from here when I see.”
Zimmerman was also able to connect personally to the autism cause.
“Raising awareness about autism is close to my heart,” said Zimmerman. “My son was misdiagnosed for autism, but before we found out it was a misdiagnosis, we went through the entire process. So I really do identify with how these families and people like Damon feel.”
State Representative Pam Snyder also attended the fundraiser and was impressed by how well the event was running and what an active role Casseday was playing in raising awareness and trying to make a difference in the area.
"[Casseday] has done an outstanding job organizing this event and creating awareness for Autism in our community,” said Snyder. “He and Dustin have been in my office several times seeking support and educating me. I'm so proud of what they were able to accomplish with this inaugural event and wish them success in the future."
In addition to various public figures, board members from the foundation were also scattered throughout the event, helping out wherever needed.
Josh Dower, one of the board members, said that if excellent attendance equated to raising a good amount of funds, the foundation could start working towards some of their goals to facilitate change in Greene County and in the southwestern Pennsylvania area.
“This fundraiser gives us the opportunity to raise awareness about autism while bringing the community together,” said Dower. “And we hope that with the money raised, we can get support groups for families running, work on creating a better website to act as an access point for information and seeing what kind of daily and weekly services we can help provide for those who need it.”
Dower also expressed that educating the public and families with autistic members was a high priority.
“We are definitely education focused as well,” said Dower. “We want families to have some experience with this whole process, to share their wisdom and experiences with those just starting their journey.”
Another board member, Aaron Yanuzo, said the foundation also wants to specifically serve the needs of the local residents, given the circumstances that many families with autistic members face.
“We want to help provide services for people right here in the area,” said Yanuzo. “Its hard for many families--especially financially difficult--to try and get the services and treatment needed when you have to travel all the way to Morgantown or Pittsburgh. That shouldn’t be the case.”
Amy Marietta Conard is the fundraising chair for the foundation.
“The turnout is a lot bigger than I thought it would be,” said Conard. “But its about time we did something like this to raise awareness locally and help families in the area.”
Conard said that she had an aunt who recently passed that had autism and when she heard about her good friend, Mr. Casseday, and his efforts to start the foundation, she wanted to help out anyway that she could.
“I’ve known him my entire life,” said Conard as she took a quick break to hand over an arm’s length of 50/50 tickets. “And if this is how I can help, that’s great. I mean, so far today, it’s been crazy, in a good way, but if this is how we raise money for this cause, that’s what we’ll do.”
Several Waynesburg students were present at the event to assist Casseday and his foundation wherever additional help was required.
Ryan Lemmon, a freshmen political science and criminal justice major, said he heard about the event via the service tab on myConnect several weeks ago and decided to sign up to help
“I saw it and thought it was a good cause,” said Lemmon. “It’s a serious problem that people should pay more attention to and I thought I’d be able to help out with what was going on here today.”
Yet, amidst all of the efforts to combat autism and the corresponding struggles and adversity, board members expressed repeatedly that early detection is critical to improving the odds for those with autism to be a high functioning member of society.
In addition, the sooner one with autism can hone in on the skills and interests they have, the better they will be.
“There of course is some grief but also hope for those who get help early,” said Dower. “It is good for autistic people to find what their gift is and what their role can be in the world and focus in on that.”
The foundation is trying to reach out to families who need assistance and want a community of others going through similar struggles to contact them to obtain information.
At the same time, they are also looking for people in the area who are interested in assisting the efforts being put forth to contact them at email@example.com.