Pathfinders for Autism (PFA) is a Maryland-based nonprofit that supports and improves the lives of individuals affected by autism. It provides recreation, resources, and training to parents and caregivers, educators, first responders, clinicians, and others. As with so many organizations, Pathfinders felt the need to shift its focus in the face of the pandemic to find new ways to reach and support the community.
We recently caught up with Katie Ramirez, the Development Director for Pathfinders for Autism. She's been a professional fundraiser for more than 20 years and has been with PFA since 2017. Her focus is squarely on cultivating donors and identifying new ones. As we learned, 2020 proved to be an eventful and record-setting year for Katie and her team - helped along the way by DipJar.
Pathfinders for Autism started in 2000 when a group of parents of children with autism sought information and support following their child’s diagnosis. These parents came together to share their stories and exchange resources they had discovered. This evolved into a database of experts and ultimately into the one-stop-shop for families facing an autism diagnosis it has become.
Pathfinders for Autism provides support in three areas: recreation, resources, and training. Those services have expanded over time to meet the changing needs of the community - particularly as the needs of adults with autism are better understood.
As parents of autistic children know, family outings can quickly spiral into stressful occasions. To help with this stress, Pathfinders for Autism organizes events - free of charge - for families to enjoy. A trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, saw 1,500 people visit. For many families, events like these are the first time they’ve been out in a group setting with their child.
While not an explicit goal of these excursions, a sense of camaraderie is present. Many family friendships have been started because of Pathfinders for Autism events. “Raising a child with autism can be really isolating, so creating paths for people to make connections is something our families value,” said Ramirez.
Providing access to resources has been at the core of Pathfinders for Autism’s mission from the beginning. Today, the organization maintains a live call center where people can ask questions, be linked with the information they need, and know they’ll be listened to. For many, the resource center line is their first point of contact with PFA.
Helping individuals and organizations understand how best to serve and work with people with autism is integral to PFA's mission. Through its training and educational programs, Pathfinders for Autism helps families, educators, law enforcement, first responders, and others engage with people on the spectrum more effectively.
Pathfinders for Autism is currently the only organization in Maryland training first responders on this issue. The training they provide focuses on communication, safety, and how to respond appropriately. They also provide safety training focused on wandering and elopement (or running away in common parlance).
As people with autism grow into adulthood, their needs change. The original cohort, whose families started the organization, are now in their twenties. To recognize and meet the needs of this group, Pathfinders for Autism recently created the Self-Advocacy Advisory Committee. This group - which has grown from 10 to 40 members - has planned movie nights, happy hours, yoga, and more.
“The social aspect of these events is amazing,” said Ramirez. “It’s empowering for anyone to make choices. These people are choosing things that matter to them and have brought in experts on job interviews, dating, etcetera.”
Through these services - and more - Pathfinders for Autism is relied on by the community it serves. It also relies on that community for support, and in 2020, that support came about in some "wild" and wonderful ways.
For the past 20 years, Pathfinders for Autism has held three annual signature events. There’s a golf tournament that has grown over time. The 5K Run Wild is family-focused, and runs through the Maryland Zoo. While the event was virtual in 2020, it’s back for 2021! The final annual event has been the Fashion Show, featuring a runway, a red carpet, and everything. In 2020, the event was held as an “ungala” and was a tremendous success, raising $300,000. MediaStar, a promotions company, helped organize the event and would play a crucial role in making 2020 a banner year for Pathfinders for Autism.
As Ramirez and her team considered 2020, they wondered how they might be able to host events in person. They knew activities would need to be outdoors and - ideally - touchless. Pathfinders had already acquired some DipJars and realized they would be a perfect contactless system. But how to do it outdoors? Well, as it happened, MediaStar just happened to have a 48’ tour bus that wasn’t being used due to the pandemic.
The bus was wrapped in Pathfinders branding and hit the road for the Dip Challenge Bus Tour! The theme was “dip into your heart.” The bus tour rolled across the state. When it arrived in a town, a popup resource center was set up and the team would spend the entire day answering questions, sharing resources, and providing support. Ten DipJars - set for donation amounts of between $5 and $250 - were set up, along with signage explaining Pathfinders for Autism and its mission.
The tour was a smash hit. It made it possible for Pathfinders to reach rural parts of the state in ways impossible in the past. “We were able to get back into the community, and that was so important,” said Ramirez. “You had families that were dealing with all of the challenges of the pandemic, layered on top of having a child on the spectrum. To be able to be there for people, to assure them they’re not alone, and to let them know that help was available - to be able to do this in these times was amazing.”
Looking forward, Pathfinders for Autism is applying the lessons learned over the course of 2020-21 to inform future activities. While the bus is no longer available, the organization is planning and hosting more community-based events. There have been state-wide treasure hunts with local partners, cultivation events at car dealerships, and more, smaller events all around the state. In February 2022, Pathfinders will be hosting a “Sweetheart Soiree” with a winery that will continue to use the “dip into your heart” theme. We at DipJar love this!
“We’ve been so fortunate,” said Ramirez. “Thanks to our donors, the autism community, and partners like MediaStar and DipJar, fundraising actually increased during COVID-19. In times like these, I’ll look for the silver lining every chance I can.”
DipJar is pleased to partner with Pathfinders for Autism - and to share inspiring stories like this one.
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