Music from “The Godfather” serenaded us as me and my husband secured our seats, wending our way through brightly decorated tables which were filled by the attendees from this year’s annual POAC Autism Services Gala. The theme this year was the roaring 20’s, and amidst zoot suits and faux furs, feathers and fedoras, the guests not only showed their support for children and adults with autism by their attendance, but many enjoyed a much-needed night out as well.
This is my second year participating in this event, and while Gary Weitzen’s (Executive Director of POAC) welcoming speech is as usual filled with gratitude, there was a bit of a twist this year, an emphasis on an integral issue those of us with children on the autism spectrum must always remember. All of us owe an enormous debt to those parents who came before us.
Whenever something positive occurs in my boys' lives (two children who have autism), I make a mental note to silently thank those parents who helped make the event possible. On Saturday night, Gary Weitzen and POAC took the opportunity to publicly thank two individuals who have improved the quality of life of my family, and who exemplify exceptional advocacy.
This year, several of POAC’s board members created the Robin Sims Trailblazer Award to honor a relentless autism advocate, who was herself the mother of two children on the autism spectrum. Robin served for over a decade on the board of the VOR (the only national organization to advocate for a full range of quality residential options and services), and as their Board President until she passed.
She also served as a member of the NJCDD, the New Jersey Council for Developmental Disabilities, which is the governing council for the Division of Developmental Disabilities. Robin fought relentlessly to ensure that families, regardless of their respective ethnic and financial statuses, remained an integral part of the decision-making process regarding the fate of their adult children with disabilities.
She was a force to be reckoned with and an inspiration to all who knew her, and a beloved sister, daughter, wife, and mother. Literally days before her death, members of Congress made time to meet with her regarding the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, listening to her impassioned pleas as she traversed the halls of the Capitol in her wheelchair. Tragically, she lost her fight to cancer seven months ago, leaving a void both within her family and within the autism community that will never be completely eradicated. She was utterly devoted to her two adult children with autism, and will be mourned by all who knew her.
Despite her myriad contributions, when it came time to select the first honoree for the Robin Sims Trailblazer Award, the choice was obvious. Bobbie Gallagher, an Ocean County resident and herself a mother of three, two of whom have autism, was the individual who most represented the same caliber of commitment and constancy in fighting for the rights of all individuals touched by autism spectrum disorders.
Our honoree, who by her own admission could not have accomplished all that she has without the help of her husband Billy Gallagher, has been working toward improving the lives of individuals with autism since her own daughter was diagnosed in 1994. She and her spouse were instrumental in soliciting the CDC to investigate a seeming cluster of children diagnosed with autism residing in Brick, NJ. While the study was inconclusive, it was the genesis for other vital studies that have assisted those with autism in the Garden State.
Bobbie’s work and alliance with United States Congressman Chris Smith, himself a tireless autism advocate, helped bring about CARA (the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act), which was passed by Congress in 2006, and H.R. 2005, a bill created to reauthorize the initial CARA act. She is a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) who has offered many hours of her time to conduct trainings for parents and professionals through POAC Autism Services, as well as other autism organizations. For several decades, she has made an indelible contribution to our community.
In addition to all the “serious stuff”, she’s also a great mom, tough as nails, and a lot of fun.
I have it on good authority that Robin Sims, were she still with us, would have been thrilled by the selection of this particular individual. As I watched Bobbie receive her award at the Gala Saturday night, an honor capped off by the knowledge that the American flag had been flown over the Capitol in both of their names, I reflected on the torch that will soon be passed to my generation. We have to continue to make whatever contributions we can, both minute and monumental. It is imperative that we forge ahead on the path that has been set before us, one created by a labor of love.
And at the conclusion of Bobbie’s moving speech, as an entire room stood to honor both women in gratitude, I reminded myself it was one of those moments to say “thank you”, just this time out loud.