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Targa Newfoundland: In hot pursuit of autism support

Proceeds from long-distance race around The Rock go to a good cause

Published March 28, 2013

For one week in September, the roads of Newfoundland are home to a 2,200-kilomete rally that, according to organizers, volunteers, and racers, has quickly become one of the key events of the year for residents of The Rock.

So it’s fitting that Targa Newfoundland has created a partnership and community relationship with an organization also making an impact on the province it calls home.

The Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador (ASNL) needed a major backer when it decided to open an autism centre in St. John’s.

“We wanted a presence in the community, and we thought a centre would serve that purpose,” says former ASNL president Joyce Churchill.

The Elaine Dobbin Centre for Autism was constructed in 2006, made possible by the generosity of its namesake patron, Elaine Dobbin.

Dobbin drew inspiration from the struggles of her friend, Churchill. When they met, Dobbins also met Churchill’s son, who has autism.

She said her friend was having a difficult time and asked how she could help. An autism centre was the answer.

Buildings cost money to construct. Dobbin took care of most of that.

But they also cost big money to operate, and it is here where the contributions of Targa are creating a legacy for autism care in Newfoundland.

It began with Ray and Julie Halleran. Parents of a daughter with autism, they covered a Ford Mustang in awareness decals, recruited sponsors and entered Targa, with their proceeds going directly to the society.

They raised $13,000, and Dobbin thought, “Maybe we can make more.”

At the photo op organized for the presentation of the Halleran’s cheque, she grabbed the arm of Targa president and founder Robert Giannou and proposed more racing for autism.

Giannou says it just made sense, “At the end of the conversation, Elaine had us with the autism society.”

The race had a long-running relationship with Easter Seals, but it was time for a change, he says. After parting ways amicably with Easter Seals, Targa took on the ASNL as its main charity.

The event raised $25,000 in 2010, $126,000 in 2011 and $86,000 last year. Outside of encouraging more racers to collect sponsorships for the autism society, the rally also hosts food booths and silent auctions.

The Elaine Dobbin Challenge now sees donated prizes of four- and five-day trips to homes she owns in Florida and the wilderness of Newfoundland.

“The big thing for us was autism must be a part of Targa and Targa must be a part of autism,” Giannou says, adding that the personal success stories and promoting autism awareness outweighs the money raised.

Tom Jackman, 36, volunteers as a researcher for the annual rally. Diagnosed with Asperger’s (a mild form of autism), Jackman struggled for direction in his youth.

“He used to spend the day in bed, doing nothing, until Targa,” Giannou says. “He’s a Targa miracle.”

Proceeds raised through Targa go to five technical centres located throughout the province. The centres let autistic people use the latest technology to enhance their communication abilities. iPads and iPods, desktop computers, voice-output devices and visual systems can help them improve communication with caregivers, family and friends.

When it works, it can be quite emotional, Giannou says, such as when you meet a mother in a corner store who can now communicate with her son. “It’s hugely satisfying, and hugely emotional.”

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