For the past 12 years, David and Lisa Barth, of Sandpoint, have cocooned around their small family, maxed out with the day-to-day challenge and joy of raising an autistic son.
But now they’ve been inspired to use their experience to raise awareness about autism in this region. A connection with a group of Sandpoint bicyclists taking on one of the country’s biggest endurance challenges in the name of autism has provided that opportunity.
“We feel like nobody gets this,” David Barth, 41, said of his family’s struggle with 12-year-old Jackson’s condition. “It’s felt lonely, it’s felt isolating, and at times really sad. The inspiration to do something like the ride, it’s bigger than just us. Here’s a group of people who are so inspired to do something big and quality for the greater good.”
The family has become the inspiration for Team Laughing Dog, which will hit the road June 12 in California and not stop until they reach Maryland, 3,000 miles away. The team is competing in the Race Across America, a round-the-clock grind that touches 14 states and climbs more than 100,000 feet.
David Barth has joined the team’s 14-member support crew and the family has been working to build connections with organizations and families of autistic children in the Inland Northwest.
“For me, this is what I want to be doing in my life, expanding, growing, being connected, versus feeling alone and isolated,” David Barth said.
Teams competing in RAAM usually finish in six to nine days, averaging 350 to 500 miles per day. Teams use a relay format, with at least one rider on the road all the time. The race is open to teams of eight, four and two riders. There is also a solo division.
Team Laughing Dog’s four-man team consists of Mel Dick, Al Lemire, Wayne Pignolet, Jacob Styer and alternate Mike Murray.
Their goal is to finish in seven days and raise $1 million for autism. They’ve already raised $10,000 through fundraisers, news stories and word-of-mouth.
The team knows they’ve set a lofty goal. The RAAM website says that in each of the past three years, all the participants, collectively, have raised about $1 million for a variety of charities.
But Dick looks at it this way:
“If 100,000 people could have the opportunity to understand what autism is, and how it impacts people, and how prevalent it really is, would they give $10 each? When you start thinking about it that way, we think maybe we can do this.”
Autism funding could use the boost, they say. The spectrum of complex developmental brain disorders now affects one in every 110 American children, including one in every 70 boys, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. An estimated 1.5 million people in the U.S. are affected. Government statistics suggest the prevalence is increasing 10 to 17 percent annually, perhaps due in part to improved diagnosis, according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization.
That organization points out that autism affects more people than leukemia, muscular dystrophy or pediatric AIDS, but private funding for it falls far behind those other conditions. The autism spectrum refers to a group of disorders including Asperger’s Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.
The team wants to connect with a national autism organization that has a Northwest chapter in order to keep the money raised here, creating programs that will continue year after year and not be “one and done,” Dick said. A 10,000-mile ride Dick did two years ago raised about $30,000 for the Panhandle Alliance for Education. That money helped start a Sandpoint program that prepares children for kindergarten, now in its third year.
“To be able to help the community is really what it’s all about,” Dick said.
Team Laughing Dog, named for its Sandpoint brewery sponsor, also includes a support crew that will drive two vans and a recreational vehicle. They’ve also been sponsored by Pend d’Oreille Winery, Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Sandpoint Sports, Keokee Publishing and Trinity at City Beach. The team anticipates the race will cost $40,000 so they have launched a two-pronged fundraising effort – one for the team and one for autism.
“One hundred percent of the donations made for autism will go toward autism,” Dick said.
The team gathered Monday in their indoor training room to film a promotional video interview with the Barths. During the hour the adults talked, Jackson squirmed happily between his parents, squealing with delight – and causing the room to erupt in laughter – when dogs came in or when his dad’s watch timer went off.
“Jackson’s got a great sense of humor,” David Barth said. “He is just blissful when he’s ‘on.’ It’s the innocence, the lack of filter, the lack of socially learned ‘norms’ … that is such a great thing to be around every day.”
The Barths hope the group’s effort will raise money for expanded training and support programs stretching as far north as Bonners Ferry.
“We do several things because people are willing to adjust their gymnastics class, their music class, their art class to include us, so I just think continuing to see those kinds of opportunities for families … is huge,” said Lisa Barth, 45. It’s quality of life, “which I think is what parents want for their children whether they’re challenged or not. That’s why we’re part of this effort.”