DECA students raise money for autism

Patricia Coppola from the Autism Spectrum Resource Center, second from the right, meets with three Naugatuck High School girls from left, Samantha Medrek, Danielle Matos and Isabella Verrilli on Feb. 16. The three seniors have raised $2,500 towards autism programs through creative fundraisers. –LARAINE WESCHLER

NAUGATUCK — Danielle Matos has an autistic baby cousin. Samantha Medrek volunteers to teach and socialize with autistic teens, and Isabella Verrilli interacts with autistic patients as a receptionist at her aunt’s medical practice.

Inspired by their experiences, the three Naugatuck High School seniors are hosting a series of fundraisers this year for the Autism Spectrum Resource Center in Wallingford. They have raised more than $2,500 to date.

“Talking to the parents of kids with autism, you realize the struggles and the hardship they go through,” Medrek said. “They just want their child to be able to have what every child has. There’s so much potential there and the potential isn’t going to grow unless there’s people that pay attention to them.”

People on the autism spectrum are often socially impaired and have trouble communicating, according to the ASRC. They can be highly sensitive to some senses while oblivious to others, and sometimes develop fascinations with one object or topic, excluding everything else. Autism, which includes Asperger’s syndrome and other “pervasive developmental disorders,” may or may not affect academic ability.

The first time Medrek volunteered with an autistic child, she was shocked at his extensive knowledge of Shakespeare.

“He was answering things about ‘Othello’ that were better than anyone in my class can answer,” Medrek said.

An autistic girl Medrek works with in a high school life skills class worries over her looks, paints her nails and organizes everything but cannot speak.

Another autistic friend, a high school freshman, can identify any song as soon as it starts playing. He can tell you who produced and acted in any movie and the year it came out, and is gifted with languages.

“It’s weird to think about where it came from, but you see a beauty in it,” Medrek said.

The trio of seniors belong to DECA, the school’s marketing club, which presents marketing and community service projects in state and national competitions. For their project, the teens decided to organize fundraisers for people with autistic after seeing firsthand the lack of resources available to them.

“It wasn’t as much publicized,” Matos said. “It’s not as commonly heard that people raise money for people with autism.”

The fundraisers included a “manly beard competition” of male students who solicited donations to grow the most masculine facial hair, a wine tasting at Santos Restaurant, a candy sale and a raffle at a well-attended soccer game against rival Watertown.

They chose the ASRC because the organization is local and organizes events for autistic people, including art and music classes for teens. The money raised will go toward a needed program, possibly a life skills class that teaches participants to do basic things like cooking and laundry, said Patricia Coppola, who coordinates the center’s social and recreational programs.

Coppola said she was proud of the work the trio has done.

“High school students are the most sensitive and aware of people with disabilities,” Coppola said.