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Runners take off at the start of the Mike's Seafood Polar Bear Run-Walk for Autism Feb. 17.

By Donald Wittkowski

When she formerly worked as a guidance secretary at the Cape May County Technical High School, Elizabeth Verity would see a boy who kept to himself and never made eye contact with anyone when he walked into class.

He was autistic.

Several years later, that same boy, now a college graduate, returned to the high school to pick up his academic records while he was pursuing his master’s degree and seemed completely changed, Verity recalled.

“When he saw me, he greeted me with a big ‘Hi, Mrs. Verity,”’ she said. “He looked me right in the eye. I bawled my eyes out in happiness and gave him a hug.”

Verity noted that those are the types of stories that inspire people who know someone with autism. There was plenty of inspiration and hope to go around on Sunday when Verity and members of her family joined an estimated 2,200 walkers and runners to raise money and awareness for autism-related causes.

Now in its 11th year, Mike’s Seafood Polar Bear Run-Walk for Autism in Sea Isle City is a premier fundraiser at the Jersey Shore that benefits special services schools, autism support groups and families with special needs children.

Sea Isle restaurant owner Mike Monichetti and his wife, Jeannie, who have two children with autism, organize the event.

The amount of money raised this year wasn’t immediately available Sunday. The 2018 run-walk, which also attracted about 2,200 participants, raised about $132,000, before expenses, for autism-related causes, said Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood, a Sea Isle restaurant.

Monichetti and his wife, Jeannie, organize the event. They have a daughter, Kara, and a son, Michael Jr., who have autism.

In an interview, Monichetti said he is overwhelmed every year by the outpouring of support for the fundraiser. Complete strangers, he said, showed immense generosity Sunday by giving him checks for thousands of dollars for autism awareness.

“It’s a great feeling to have when you know that so many people are here to support people with disabilities,” Monichetti said. “It’s just overwhelming.”

The run-walk was one of the centerpieces of the Polar Bear Plunge Weekend festivities in Sea Isle. The annual Polar Bear celebration traditionally draws about 50,000 visitors to town in the dead of winter, reviving Sea Isle’s economy during what would normally be a quiet time at the Jersey Shore.

Monichetti said Sea Isle officials and the local community play a major role in the run-walk’s success.

“We couldn’t have this event without the support and consent of Sea Isle City,” he said. “Sea Isle is definitely a community that gives back.”

Mike Monichetti shares a light moment with two dinosaur characters and 16-year-old Chloe Byrne, of Cape May Court House, who is Miss Amazing New Jersey Junior Teen.

The weekend’s main attraction was the Polar Bear Plunge, a madcap spectacle that features bathers dressed in wacky costumes and swimsuits taking a dip in the chilly ocean. Thousands of people – plungers and spectators – showed up for the event on Saturday afternoon.

It was a more sedate crowd Sunday for the autism run-walk on Sea Isle’s Promenade. Many of the participants were young families, although there were also quite a few senior citizens who took part.

Elizabeth Verity, who lives in Dennisville, was joined by her husband, Leonard, their 11-year-old grandson, Justin Verity, and her sister-in-law, Linda Beattie, of Cape May Court House.

Beattie, who was participating in the run-walk for the first time, said her son-in-law’s 7-year-old nephew has autism. One reason she wanted to take part in the fundraiser was to help shed light on the financial challenges experienced by families with autistic children.

“There’s not a lot of health care to help with the expenses,” she said.

Beattie pointed out that the parents of the 7-year-old autistic child have to spend a lot of their own money because health care coverage falls short.

“His family does all they can to help him, but they have a lot of out-of-pocket expenses,” she said.

From left, Elizabeth Verity, of Dennisville, her 11-year-old grandson, Justin Verity, and Linda Beattie, of Cape May Court House, get ready for the run-walk.

Autism has become more prevalent in recent years, but doctors don’t know why. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that on average, one of every 59 births in the United States involves an autistic child, compared to one in 125 just 10 years ago.

Autism is a general term for complex disorders of brain development. Depending on the severity of the disorder, autistic people may have difficulties with social interaction and communication. They may also engage in repetitive behavior.

Debbie Warren, a first-time participant in the run-walk Sunday, said her cousin’s son has autism. The Bedminster, Pa., resident was accompanied by her 13-year-old son, Dino.

“We wanted to do what we can to show our support,” Warren said.

Dino, a seventh-grader at a middle school in Perkasie, Pa., excels in math, science and English, his mother said. He tutors students with learning disabilities at his school, so the autism run-walk was seen as another outlet for him to give a helping hand.

“It’s nice helping people,” Dino said, smiling.

Debbie Warren and her 13-year-old son, Dino, took part in the run-walk for the first time.
Brother and sister Ryan and Kaitlin Hickey, of Churchville, Pa., ham it up on the Promenade with two polar bear characters.
Zach Miller, 35, of West Chester, Pa., wins the 5K race with a time of 15 minutes, 46 seconds.

Race results are available at https://results.rmraces.live/Mike-Seafood/events/2019/Mikes-Seafood-Polar-Bear-5K-Run-Walk-for-Autism/results