Schwartz: Helping A Cause That Hits Close To Home, Red Bulls Set To Host Autism Awareness Night
By Peter Schwartz
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Julia de Grandpre was just 2 years old when her preschool teacher in Atlanta noticed that something was wrong. That's when Julia's teacher brought parents Marc and Kim in for a chat where she told them Julia was not interacting with the other students.
After consulting with doctors and not getting any definitive answers, the de Grandpre family flew up to New Jersey. They were going to visit family for Christmas anyway, but now they had the chance to take Julia to see some specialists.
That's when she was diagnosed with autism.
Now 8 years old, Julia has come a long way since the family moved back to New Jersey so that she could be under the care of some of the best doctors and therapists.
"She's progressed greatly in the system here," said Marc de Grandpre, general manager of the New York Red Bulls. "Her speech is much improved. She is much more social than your typical child on the spectrum, which is a benefit and a blessing for us."
Julia's battle with the disorder is a big reason why de Grandpre launched Autism Awareness Night at Red Bull Arena last season. This year's event will take place April 9 when the Red Bulls host Sporting Kansas City at 7 p.m.
A portion of the ticket sales will be donated to Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a possible cure for autism.
The stadium will be equipped that night to provide an opportunity for families with autistic children and adults to attend a match, something that is not normally possible. The entire staff from security to food and beverage will be trained on how to communicate on how to work with those affected by autism.
Fans that have been to Red Bull Arena will notice some other changes to the game-day experience that night. The level of the public address system will be lowered, and there will be a quiet zone where members of the autism community can go to and relax if the noise gets too loud.
"For us, it's an opportunity to help raise the awareness," said de Grandpre, who returned to the organization in May 2014 after previously serving as managing director from 2006-08.
Since her father's return to the franchise, Julia has developed a close relationship with everyone in the organization, from the front office right down to the players. Aside from one little girl in her neighborhood that comes over every week to play with her, Julia does not have many friends in her age group.
Instead, her friends are the Red Bulls players.
"She's like part of the team," said Red Bulls midfielder and captain Dax McCarty. "She really loves hanging out with us and looks up to us. We all take a lot of pride in being around her. It raises our level whenever we see her. She encourages us to win and be better."
Julia loves all of the players, but she is particularly close with McCarty. When her father returned to the Red Bulls, Julia began to spend time around the team, and there was just something about Dax that caught her eye.
"She thought Dax was in One Direction when she met him," said de Grandpre. "She loves the band, so I think that's where it came about for Dax and Julia's relationship. From there, he's been her favorite. He's been great with her."
Julia has been doing great in terms of her progress thanks to the hard work of therapists and teachers. They exhibit a lot of commitment and passion, but there is also a risk for them.
"It's not very rewarding when a child reacts to certain demands that you put on them, and they can physically hurt therapists," said de Grandpre. "Somehow these therapists and teachers keep coming every day with a smile. It takes an army to help one child on the spectrum on a daily basis."
What the Red Bulls are hoping for is an army of 25,000 supporters on Autism Awareness Night.
In addition to what the night means for families affected by autism, all fans in attendance will have the opportunity to take a picture at the autism-themed photo booth in the "BULLevard" fan fest area. There will also be a person affected with autism singing the national anthem while players will be wearing autism awareness-themed items on the pitch.
"It's something that we feel is really important in terms of awareness and outreach," said McCarty. "Our team has a great platform to bring awareness to the situation and how many people autism affects."
At each game this season, Red Bulls fans get to take home a match-day poster that usually features one of the players. But on April 9, the first 5,000 fans will receive a limited-edition autism awareness-themed poster that was designed by Julia and the other children who are part of the The Valley Program in New Jersey.
All in all, it's going to be a night to remember at Red Bull Arena. A Red Bulls win would be the icing on the cake, especially for perhaps their biggest fan.
But Julia de Grandpre is already a winner in how she has progressed with her autism.
For tickets to Autism Awareness Night on April 9, visit http://www.newyorkredbulls.com/AutismAwareness. Use the promotional code Autism2016 to donate a portion of the sale to Autism Speaks.
Don't forget to follow Peter on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NewYorkRedBulls and @autismspeaks.
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