"For the Eagles, it might be a small effort to do it. But for us, it changed everything. We are very grateful for it."
That's how Kim Hendriks described the difference last year's Eagles Autism Challenge made for her son, 9-year-old Thijmen (pronounced Taimen).
Thijmen traveled with his father, Bram, from their home in Haarlem, Netherlands – a coastal town that is a 10-minute train ride from Amsterdam – to Philadelphia for the Eagles Autism Challenge last May. Thijmen, the oldest of three children, is on the spectrum. He has battled through some "rough years," as his mother says. He struggled in social situations and had a difficult time making friends. His parents wanted to discover a way to provide a positive experience for Thijmen associated with autism.
"He used to ask, 'Mommy, why do I have this? Why do I have this autism?' It's tough because when you have your first baby, you hope that they are healthy," Kim said. "When you notice that it's a tough ride, you realize that the challenge is not for yourself but for your child. You just don't want that. You want for them the best. We were afraid that it wouldn't turn out for the best."
Bram works for the law firm Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check based in Radnor, Pennsylvania. When Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check formed Team KTMC for last year's inaugural bike/run/walk event, Bram knew he had to get on board.
The Eagles Autism Challenge proved to be just what young Thijmen needed. When Thijmen returned home, he decorated his room with Eagles paraphernalia. Thijmen became a part of Eagles Everywhere, the global community united by midnight green. Thijmen had a taste of what being an Eagles fan was all about and wanted more, so he and his father traveled to London to see the team play the Jaguars last October. Before the game, Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie invited Bram and his son to the field to present them with tickets to Super Bowl LIII.
The Hendriks family has discovered that Thijmen also has a passion for travel. The trips to Philadelphia, London, and Atlanta gave Thijmen the confidence to openly discuss to his sixth-grade class what it's like to be on the spectrum. His school hosted a party where he brought in the HUGE Super Bowl ticket that he was presented with in London. The local newspaper did an extensive feature on Thijmen, which helped educate others in the community about autism.
"He felt less worthy because of his autism," Kim said. "He had such a struggle at school. He now does so much better. It's really touched my heart."
On Saturday, the second Eagles Autism Challenge takes place at Lincoln Financial Field. Not only did Bram and Thijmen return, but Kim made her first trip to the United States along with their second son, Pepijn, who is 8. Their youngest daughter, Sarah, is 13 months old and remained back home in the Netherlands with family. Neither Pepijn nor Sarah is on the spectrum. On Friday, the Hendriks family toured the NovaCare Complex and reconnected with Lurie and met team president Don Smolenski. Thijmen, sporting the cycling jersey that will be worn by the riders on Saturday, and Pepijn, who wore a Bryce Harper Phillies jersey, ran around the indoor facility able to enjoy being kids.
Bram and Kim have seen Thijmen smile a lot more since last year's Eagles Autism Challenge.
"We don't see him doing that a lot," Kim said. "He's usually tense. For us, it's good to see that he has such a good time here."
It is more difficult to obtain the therapy and support resources for autism back in the Netherlands. Kim works as an advocate for families who discover that their child is on the spectrum. She works with schools to make sure that they have the tools necessary to work with autistic children. They know the millions of dollars raised from the Eagles Autism Challenge won't necessarily find a cure for this generation but hope that isn't the case too far down the road.
"That's why we're so supportive of this good cause because we believe that more research is needed in different areas related to autism to get a better understanding of autism spectrum disorders, to get a better understanding of treatments that can be useful and helpful for kids on the autism spectrum," Bram said. "I hope that they are going to make significant progress over the years to come as a result of the Eagles' efforts. A lot of new research is possible because of fundraising efforts."
To help support the Hendriks family, you can donate to their page here.