“And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air…” Skaters, friends, and family stood at attention as Jodi DiPiazza sang the National Anthem. It was only fitting that this young girl from the autistic community launched Autism Skates 2016, the 4th annual skate-a-thon for the Ice House of New Jersey Figure Skating Club.

“I have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat every time I hear Jodi sing,” said organizer and co-host Amanda Witkowski, “Jodi kicked off Autism Skates 2014 and I am so touched that she was able to join us again.”

“What was exciting for me was that we brought the skating community together with the autistic community, said organizer and co-host Sarah Kim. “It was beautiful to see competitive skaters who train every day, come in on a weekend and hold the hands of an autistic child to help them skate a lap around the rink.”

This is the second time Witkowski organized and hosted her Club’s skate-a-thon. When asked about her interest in autism Witkowski explained. “Autism Skates was started because of my lack of understanding about autism. I was curious about a cousin who simply seemed shy and my neighbor who couldn’t verbalize his needs except through noises.  The idea that both were autistic and experiencing such different issues led to my interest in knowing more. What struck me was that many parents may not recognize the early signs, or be able to accept that there is an issue. What they need to know is that early diagnosis helps get the child into programs that help them to potentially verbalize or communicate in some manner, so as to express their ideas and needs to those who love them deeply.”

“Based on that,” said Kim, “We decided early on to primarily support New Beginnings for Tomorrow, which helps individuals develop cognitive and social skills. Representatives from the school joined us that day, skated, and even helped count laps!”

Prior to the event Kim and Witkowski sold commemorative tee shirts and autism puzzle pieces. Using social media they promoted the event to their Club, communities and beyond. Club member Gianna Bozzetti performed extensive research and generated informational materials to distribute at the event. Representatives from the National Garden Miss pageant system assisted at the event with donations of water to distribute to participants.

Every skater who completed 100 laps received a certificate of recognition. The first two across the finish line received trophies. There were trophies for larger donations, and souvenir bracelets as well. “This event is special to our Club in so many ways,” said IHNJFSC President Maria Morin. “I am proud of the work the girls put in to making it a success, the ways they involved skaters and others, and the message this sends about the positive contribution teens are making.” Plans for Autism Skates 2017 are already underway.