It was a surreal experience.
On the evening of Nov. 18, I was sitting in the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Robert De Niro was there. So was Michael J. Fox. At one point, the evening’s host, Jon Stewart, stood just a few feet away, chatting with Felicia Johnson, whose son has received services from Damar.
And early in the evening, Felicia’s story was broadcast to the world on HBO.
This all happened in New York at the 2017 Night of Too Many Stars, a star-studded benefit for NEXT for Autism. First aired in 2006, Night of Too Many Stars has raised nearly $24 million for autism causes. The event includes performances by comedy all-stars and five- and six-figure auctions of one-of-a-kind experiences like the chance to have Chris Rock “read your mind” on air, being drawn into a South Park episode, a personalized voicemail message by Lin-Manual Miranda, and more.
And in between all of the comedy bits and wild stunts, the show introduces the world to people with autism and the people who love them. And that’s how it happened that I should be sitting in that New York theatre with a crowd of A-list celebrities watching as the world heard about what Damar does.
This moment actually took root back in 2014, when Damar applied for a grant from NEXT for Autism. Although that organization generally focuses on New York, we had heard that it was offering grants for innovative programs outside of New York, and we applied. Representatives from NEXT for Autism came to Indianapolis to see Damar and learn more about our work. Eventually, they gave us a $25,000 grant, which we used to help support our specialized autism services. A year later, we reported back to NEXT for Autism, and that was that …
… until earlier this year, when we got a call from people at Night of Too Many Stars. They said they were looking for families to feature in this year’s program. We agreed to work with them, and they came to Damar’s campus to film and do interviews. They gave us no guarantees that the feature on a Damar family would appear in the show, or that Damar would be mentioned. Still, we went to New York hoping for the best.
And we got better than we had hoped. Yes, Felicia’s story was beautifully told, Damar was mentioned and our logo was visible. But, even more important, in conjunction with the other stories told that night, Felicia’s story helped people understand autism and the way it affects families, and how organizations across the nation are working to improve lives.
All in all, the evening was amazing. I was impressed by NEXT for Autism – we share the same vision and concerns for the autism community – and I was also impressed by the sincere interest in autism many of the celebrities showed. And, most of all, I was overwhelmed by the idea that, while they were being entertained by the likes of Jon Stewart and Robert De Niro, millions of people watching at home were being truly touched by stories about autism and the extraordinary people it touches.
Watch Felicia’s story here.