CANANDAIGUA — For the past several years, close to 700 people have converged on Eastview Mall in April for the annual Autism Awareness Walk that raises funds for Happiness House in Canandaigua and Geneva, and the Golisano Autism Center in Rochester.

It won’t be happening this year due to COVID-19, so organizers and participants are taking a “virtual walk” on Facebook Live that starts at 9 a.m. Saturday.

“We are somewhat disappointed we couldn’t do it together, but this is a good way to get outside, do something fun and support the organizations,” said Mary Walsh Boatfield, president and CEO of Happiness House. “It’s always nice to come together as a large group, since some of the people we only see once or twice per year. Next year we look forward to getting back to Eastview Mall.”

This year’s honorary chairperson is 4-year-old James Fratto of Farmington, who is in the Happiness House New Friends preschool program in Canandaigua. James was diagnosed with nonverbal autism when he was 18 months old.

“We are so fortunate. Right from day one at Happiness House, the teachers and therapists have been there for James,” said his mother, Liz Fratto. “They have given us so many resources to help us through this. That is why I am so passionate about this walk and raising money through pledges and donations. Happiness House has truly helped every step of the way.”

Liz Fratto, a remedial reading teacher in the Midlakes school district, became concerned about James around the time of his first birthday.

“He wasn’t reacting to his name and wasn’t really bothered when he would fall and hurt himself. He was just kind of happy and smiling,” she said. “We went to Happiness House for a speech and language evaluation at 18 months, and he was diagnosed with autism.”

Fratto said James has made tremendous strides with his speech and interactions with others during the last two-plus years. He will enter kindergarten this fall in the Victor school district.

“It will be a wonderful transition from Happiness House. Victor has wonderful programs for children with autism,” his mom said. “I would encourage any parent of a small child who may have autism to contact Happiness House. Don’t be afraid to reach out. They help so much.”

“James is amazing,” Boatfield said. “We are thrilled to have him as our honorary chairperson.”

The annual walk, now in its 10th year, is a celebration of April’s designation as National Autism Awareness Month. The walk is organized by Ability Partners Foundation, a nonprofit that benefits children and adults through three agencies — CP Rochester, Happiness House, and Rochester Rehabilitation.

This year’s social media walk will include stories and videos from past honorary chairs, and videos posted live by participants who have collected pledges and donations. There also will be prizes.

Boatfield said while the walk at Eastview Mall has drawn around 700 people in the past and raised closed to $50,000, this year’s goal is at least $25,000.

“We hope to get that many walkers in the four-county area (Monroe, Ontario, Wayne and Seneca counties). People can just go out and walk in their own neighborhoods while practicing social distancing and raising awareness of autism,” she said. “We began planning for the virtual walk about six weeks ago. We did our research and homework, and we have learned from what others are doing.”

For more information on how to support the Virtual Autism Awareness Walk, contact Lea Battaglia at (585) 412-9040, ext. 1324 or email at lbattaglia@happinesshouse.org.

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