GWR Sunshine Foundation becomes Autism Action Partnership
by Nicole Lindquist, UNMC public affairs

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Nearly 400 people attended the annual GWR Sunshine Foundation dinner on June 1. Dick Holland, philanthropist and retired Omaha advertising executive, served as the honorary chair. KETV Channel 7's Brandi Petersen served as the emcee for the event.
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C.L. and Rachel Werner laugh at one of comedian Elijah Wapner's jokes at the fundraiser dinner. C.L. was last year's recipient of the "Help is Hope" award for his commitment to the cause.
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Ken Bird, left, the former superintendent of Westside Community Schools, was honored with the "Help is Hope" award by Gail Werner-Robertson and her husband, Scott. Bird's wife, Annie, is the coordinator for the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at MMI.
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Elijah Wapner, who was diagnosed at age 3 with Asperger's syndrome, was featured on MTV's "True Life: I have autism." Here, he tells the crowd he wants to talk about the word "inappropriate."
Seven years ago, the GWR Sunshine Foundation, founded by Gail Werner-Robertson and her husband, Scott, hosted its first fundraiser for autism awareness. About $15,000 was raised.

Fast-forward to 2008. A silent and oral auction dinner and subsequent golf tournament held earlier this month raised more than $500,000 for the cause. The majority of those funds go to support stipends, scholarships and social skills programs at UNMC's Munroe-Meyer Institute (MMI).

"It's been our joy working for the past seven years to put this program together and to help families in Nebraska," Werner-Robertson said. "But it's the support of several generous donors who have contributed to the cause that has solidified the community's commitment to autism awareness and expanded services.

"We find it an inspiration as we move forward in our journey as the Autism Action Partnership."

Though the name of the organization may have changed from the GWR Sunshine Foundation to the Autism Action Partnership, its mission remains the same -- to improve the quality of life for people on the autism spectrum and their families through education, advocacy and support, thereby enabling them to be an integral part of the community.

"The contributions of the GWR Sunshine Foundation, now the Autism Action Partnership, have been significant to the development of the Munroe-Meyer Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CAD)," said Annie Bird, coordinator of the CAD. "The families we serve have received benefits that could not have been provided without the generous contributions of the donors at this annual event."

Nearly 400 people attended the dinner auction on June 1 at the Union Pacific Center, where comic Elijah Wapner, who was featured on MTV's "True Life: I Have Autism," entertained the crowd with his routine about autism.

Wapner, dubbed Mr. Inevitable, did a bit on theme songs in which he pretended to be a "theme song psychic." Pointing to former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, he said, "Your theme song is, 'I Feel Pretty,'" which drew lots of laughs from the audience.

Valerie Paradiz, Ph.D., accompanied her son to Omaha to speak about their journey with autism. Dr. Paradiz and her son both have Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism characterized by difficulties with communication and social interaction. Elijah was diagnosed at age 3.

"He has used comedy to learn and grow," Dr. Paradiz said. "It has just opened a new life for him."

Though not a comedian by trade, Nick Stuart also cracked the crowd up. The junior-to-be at Westside High School gave an update on his sophomore year of in which he got a dog named Butch, took drama class, wrestled and joined the social skills club at MMI.

"We're thrilled with how far we've come, but we need to engage more individuals, foundations and corporations in this fight."

Gail Werner-Robertson

"I've met a lot of new people and done a lot of exciting things," he said, including going to see Blue Man Group and a pro wrestling event -- his favorite. "As some of you know, my dream is to be a professional wrestler."

On a serious note, Stuart was able to put a face on autism.

"Autism has nowhere to hide, it's forever in our minds with newspapers and TV," he said. "But autism should not define us; it's just an obstacle to be overcome."

Recognized for making autism a top priority in education, Ken Bird, Annie Bird's husband and retired superintendent from Omaha's Westside Community Schools, received the Help is Hope award.

"I am particularly pleased that Gail and Scott recognized the efforts of the school districts in addressing the needs of children and families living with autism by presenting my husband, Ken, with the 'Help is Hope' award," Annie Bird said. "On behalf of his incredible staff who have worked diligently to provide opportunities for children in the Westside Community Schools, he is deeply grateful to the efforts of Gail and Scott over the past ten years to improve the capacity of our state to more appropriately serve families dealing with challenges similar to their own."

The Robertsons are the parents of two autistic sons, Jared, 22, and Cleighton, 15.

"We really understand the way families feel," Werner-Robertson said. "We understand how hard it is to find a dentist or a barber."

The fundraising and public awareness efforts generated by annual event are the driving force behind the rapid expansion of the amount, variety and quality of services available to children with autism and their families in Nebraska.

"We're thrilled with how far we've come," Werner-Robertson said, "but we need to engage more individuals, foundations and corporations in this fight."

Date Published: Monday, June 23, 2008