By Maddy Vitale
Christine Czaja, of Seaville, and her family never miss the annual Polar Bear Run-Walk for Autism event in Sea Isle City.
Sunday was no different.
The run has significant meaning to the family.
Czaja and her husband Jeff LeFrance, brought their children Riley, 10, and 5-year-old Skylar to the event.
LeFrance was there to support his wife, as she ran in remembrance of her son Bode, who was autistic. In 2014, at just 4-years-old, Bode passed away.
“My son was non-verbal and autistic. I run for him,” she said. “They do such a nice job with this run. I am honored to come.”
Mike and Jeannie Monichetti, owners of Mike’s Seafood in Sea Isle City, have four children. Two of their kids have autism, Mikey, 15, and Kara, 16. They organized the fundraiser to promote awareness and raise money to help children with autism and their families, as well as children with disabilities.
That was a decade ago. Since then, the event, has become one of the largest events during Sea Isle’s annual Polar Bear Weekend festivities.
What began as just 1,100 participants raising $18,000 has grown rapidly.
This year’s figures make it a record-breaker. There were more than 3,800 participants in the event Sunday, and they expect to have raised more than $100,000.
“It was a beautiful day for beautiful children,” Mike Monichetti said.
Jeannie Monichetti remarked, with her children Kara and Mikey at her side after the event, “We are thrilled that everyone shows up for the run. It shows how many people care as much as we do,” she said. “It is a great turnout.”
The funds go to autism-related causes and organizations. Proceeds from this year’s event will benefit the organization Autism Speaks as well as autism support groups, special services schools and families of special needs children.
Beth Belskis, of Ocean City, and her autistic son Benedict, 8, came out to do the walk and made sure to register early.
“We were here around 8:30 a.m.,” Belskis said of their second year attending the run-walk. “He loves it.”
The mother-son team wore matching bright yellow shirts with pictures of pineapples on them.
Benedict even brought a pineapple and held it.
“It’s a great metaphor for autism. It can be prickly and intimidating, like a pineapple, but so sweet,” Belskis said. “Benedict has a heart of gold.”
Benedict’s favorite part of the day?
“I don’t know. I guess the walk,” Benedict said, with a smile.
Lisa Zink and her husband Mike Zink, of Marlton, made the event a family affair. They brought their 11-year-old triplets, Ava, Lila and Olivia, and their dog Lucky.
“We always come down for the run because we want to show support for autism awareness. It is a good event,” Lisa Zink said. “I have friends with autistic children.”
During the event’s afterparty at a tent set up outside of LaCosta’s Motel, Mike Johnson and Kate O’Brien presented Mike Monichetti with an $18,000 check.
At one point, Monichetti was presented with an envelope that was dropped off by someone who did not want acknowledgement for the gift.
Enclosed in the envelope was $2,500 to go to the cause.
Monichetti told the crowd he is grateful to the wonderful people who have shown support and generosity for the cause, such as Johnson and O’Brien. He also said the business community and the public has been so supportive throughout the years. A trophy presentation to the winners of the race and remarks from Bennett, as well as Race Director Mike Givens, topped off the ceremony.
Bennett, owner of LaCosta’s emcees the event every year. Monichetti said he can’t thank him enough for all the support he has shown over the years for autism awareness.
“Jimmy Bennett has made raising awareness for autism his passion,” Monichetti said.
The Ferko String Band performed, compliments of an anonymous donor, to a packed tent of participants and event supporters.
Givens presented trophies to the race winners.
According to race results from JB Sports Timing, Zach Miller, of West Chester won the race. Second place went to Alexander Ermold, of Shillington, Marquis Cox, of Mt. Laurel placed third.
Bridgette Higgins, of Union County, was the first female to finish. She bested her time of 19:26 from last year.
“I think I got 19:11, I’m very happy,” Higgins said.
Sue Reich, of Ocean City, was the second female finisher.
“I run all the time, but this is really a great race,” Reich said.
And third place for the women went to Sarah Tull, of Jenkintown.
Katherine Custer, Sea Isle City spokeswoman said, “This is the best fundraiser in Sea Isle City. We are very proud of the Monichetti family.”