LITTLE FALLS, NJ - Passaic Valley High School was the site where many laced up their walking shoes and took part in the second annual "Autism Walk" on April 23. The event was organized to help raise support, awareness and funding for the high school's autism program, now in its second year.

Over 500 participants comprised of students, staff, and members of the community, donated their time during a sunny morning where they transformed into foot soldiers. Walkers of all ages, many of who have been personally affected by autism, sported their autism awareness T-shirts and took to the outdoor track. The goal was to circle the track six times, equaling one and a half miles.

According to Dr. JoAnn Cardillo, superintendent, students and other attendees signed up for a minimum of a $5 donation to take part in the race. Over $6,000 was raised at the event, with more donations still coming in.

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"Donors gave anywhere between $5 and $100," Cardillo said. "Each participant received an autism bracelet for the walk. The tours we had of the new classrooms really showed how the money is being spent."

Students enrolled in the high school's program worked with regular education art students in creating a puzzle piece banner, which hung on the fence by the track's entrance. Local sponsors like Manhattan Bagel in Totowa, donated proceeds from bagels and coffee throughout the day. The Little Falls Fire Department's Eagle Rescue Squad donated water bottles.

Amy Pellegrini, secretary of student athletics and activities, came up with the idea for the event. As the mother of 14-year-old Zachary, who has autism and is enrolled in the program, she thought would be a fun way to raise money.

"We lucked out with the great weather once again," she said. "It's great to see everyone come out again and I hope to see the walk continue to grow each year."

According to Claire Arvin, behavior specialist, the autism program began two years ago and has expanded thanks to additional funding from events like the walk, which goes towards the community based instruction. The program consults with the Bergen County Board of Special Services and there are currently 15 students enrolled this year, four of which are out-of-district and tuition based.  The first students scheduled to graduate from the program will be with the class of 2019.

"The funding goes into the program to give students experiences out in the community," Arvin explained. "They get gym memberships and other instructional needs, such as iPads. They learn to improve communication and get exposure for prevocational work. Once they turn 16, they are offered internships as well."

The program also offers therapeutic recreation. A recent outing at 360 Fitness in Fairfield, had students taking part in fun physical challenges, supervised by PVHS teachers, teacher assistance, including the gym's instructors.

"One of our students loved it so much that we expanded it to be included as part of the regular activities," Arvin added. "We expose the students to many other activities, such as art, and we're able to purchase supplies through this funding."

The program also opened two new classrooms this year that were made possible through the high school's budget. The classrooms were spotlighted during tours after the walk. A slide presentation was also given, which highlighted many aspects of the program.

"We have computers, exercise equipment and a living space area, where students learn life skills and independence. There is an area where students learn kitchen basics," she noted.

Cardillo added that the program continues to grow and the money raised from the walk is a great help.

"The walk has certainly become an annual event here at PV," she added. "We're looking forward to another activity this week with the program for our courtyard beautification project. Our autism students will be working again with our regular education students."