Under sunny skies and with warm temperatures making for a perfect spring Saturday, more than 3,600 Eagles fans, friends, and family participated in the 2019 Eagles Autism Challenge, presented by Lincoln Financial Group, as a community once again banded together to change the world.
If you see the Eagles Autism Challenge as an event, think again. It's far more than that.
"The Eagles Autism Challenge has become more than just a day," Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie said during the Friday night kickoff bash at Lincoln Financial Field. "It is who we are."
Welcomed by the beautiful morning, a stark contrast to the 2018 rainstorm and cold winds, participants – including more than 40 Eagles players, along with head coach Doug Pederson and his staff, Eagles legends, and members of the front office – had their choice of three bike rides – Wawa Classic 50-mile, Wawa Shorti 30-mile, and the Wawa Junior 15-mile – the five Below 5k walk/run, and, new in 2019, a Sensory Walk around the perimeter of the stadium. Along with the wide range of the participants, the activities were expanded and even more varied than in Year 1, continuing the theme of diversity and inclusion.
After raising $2.5 million in 2018, the Eagles Autism Challenge raised that number to $3.37 million, bringing the two-year total to nearly $6 million for the advancement of autism awareness, research, and action moving toward, ultimately, a cure. Donations are still accepted through May 31, and a silent auction featuring once-in-a-lifetime Eagles experiences runs through May 24.
"I think the picture of autism has changed in a couple of ways in the last year," said Thomas Jefferson University's Dr. Roseann Schaaf, whose lab seeks to understand and treat sensory difficulties in autism. Her lab studies the ways the brain perceives and integrates sensory information, how differences in sensory processing and integration impact everyday life skills, and whether occupational therapy interventions designed to treat these sensory issues result in long-lasting changes in functional skills needed for success in everyday life.
"One is that there is more of an emphasis on treatment and helping individual with autism integrate into the community, everything from young children all the way up to adults. There is progress. Everything that the Eagles do with the help of the community makes a difference. As a researcher, we need money to fund our programs. And to have these two years and the success that we've had, it's just remarkable."
A weekend of activity caps a year of hard work spearheaded by Eagles Autism Challenge executive director Ryan Hammond and her staff. Coordinating the fundraising efforts and charting the course for the actual weekend itself is a daily effort that has been worth every bit of the sweat equity invested.
"When you have a child who is screaming for three hours and you're home and you're alone, you can feel like you're on an island," said Scott Paymer, who brought his wife and children to the Eagles Autism Challenge for the first time. "Here, it's not an island. Everyone feels safe and secure and welcomed. I can't tell you how incredible that feeling is for a family and a child."
About one in 59 children born is identified with autism spectrum disorder, a statistic that is updated every couple of years in this country. The Eagles have helped make Philadelphia a global hub for leading the way on autism research and development.
Said Hammond: "This has been incredible. To go from having a first-year event that was so successful, almost unprecedented as we raised $2.5 million, had 3,300 participants, 25,000 donors from around the world, you step back and you say, 'How can you build on something like that?' I think you want to carry through the momentum, and I think that's what we've done. We have successfully weaved the Eagles Autism Challenge into our brand. It's not 'Why autism?' anymore. We've made the connection with the community and I think that's probably been the most important thing.
"The autism community has embraced us with pride, with emotional connections, and incredible support. When you put a call to action to the community and they say, 'Yes,' and then you see that response and we all build upon what we did last year, it's just incredible. I think the possibilities are endless."
They certainly were on Saturday as the thousands of participants ate and drank and danced and partied on the grass at Lincoln Financial Field. Moms and dads and their children enjoyed the safety and security of knowing they were surrounded by love and inclusiveness.
As Lurie says, the Eagles Autism Challenge is a way of life for the Philadelphia Eagles.
"We've taken a giant leap forward," said team president Don Smolenski after completing the Wawa Classic 50-mile bike ride. "So many people have gotten involved and have embraced our platform and our support for neurodiversity. The more and more we have this conversation, the more we are changing the conversation. It blows you away when you understand how far we've come in a short time, and we know we have so much more to do."
The players took a break from their offseason program to take part in the morning and all of them stayed after the ride/walk/run to sign autographs, pose for pictures, and once again appreciate the power of a community coming together for a common cause.
For those players who have been around for some time, it's another reminder that playing for the Philadelphia Eagles means more than just winning games on the field.
"This is a pretty special thing we've got going on here," All-Pro center Jason Kelce said. "It's incredible. Being a Philadelphia Eagle, being entrenched in this community, and understanding what I can do and what I can give back and the difference we all make, that's what it's all about."
Take a look at the best photos from this year's Eagles Autism Challenge!