Inspired by a case in 2003, Alan Pickert raises money and awareness in fight against disorder
If you get within speaking distance of Alan Pickert, there’s a good chance you might hear about the local effort to help people with autism and their families.
“I have four children and we’ve been blessed that they’re all healthy,” he said. “But that’s not true for every family.”
A partner at the Terrell Hogan law firm, Pickert got involved with the cause in 2003 after he represented the parents of a child with autism who contended their daughter’s condition was caused by an ingredient drug manufacturers put in childhood vaccines.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as a disability that can affect children and adults. It causes an inability to communicate or interact with others as well as repetitive behaviors and limited interests or activities. The symptoms limit or even eliminate the ability to function socially at school or work and in other areas of life.
Pickert’s clients, Bobby and Leslie Weed, in 2007 established Healing Every Autistic Life, a Ponte Vedra-based nonprofit that raises awareness of autism — and also raises money to support programs that help those who suffer from the disorder and their families.
After learning about ASD and the effect it has on children and their families, Pickert saw an opportunity to make a contribution above and beyond his legal representation.
“I realized there was very little support in terms of structured programs or even parent support groups,” he said.
Pickert has served on the board of directors since the beginning, including three years as its president.
Like most nonprofits, the organization started small, but it has grown.
“Our first fundraiser was a garage sale. We made $400,” said Pickert.
The foundation’s annual gala and golf outing in February at TPC Sawgrass raised more than $325,000, he said.
Since 2007, HEAL has raised more than $2 million that was used to provide about 150 grants for programs that help those in the community affected by autism.
The organization donated 200 iPads for special education classrooms in Duval and Clay counties and will expand the program this year with another 100 devices and include schools in Baker County.
“The iPads allow a non-verbal person to communicate. It’s amazing to watch someone who’s been non-verbal for years get a voice,” Pickert said.
This summer, HEAL will provide funding for 15 sports leagues, arts camps and support groups.
One of the organization’s most recent initiatives is providing trained service dogs for people with ASD.
“Children with autism make a great connection with dogs,” Pickert said. “We’ve seen so many cases where it really opens up their emotions.”
The foundation’s long-range plan is to construct five special-needs adaptive parks, one each in Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties, he said.
The next event on the organization’s schedule is the annual HEAL Autism Walk on Sunday at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
Pickert said the organizers are hoping for 1,500 walkers and 200 volunteers to participate in the all-day event.
“Families who have children on the autism spectrum can enjoy a day at the zoo without having to worry about how another adult might react to an autistic child,” he said. “At the zoo walk, everybody has walked in your shoes.”