Blue and white balloons, Bobby Bearcat and the Northwest Missouri State University women's basketball team made for a festive atmosphere Friday afternoon at Eugene Field Elementary School, where third graders gathered in the Kiva assembly area for the second-annual "Light It Up Blue" autism awareness event.
The gathering, which culminated in a balloon release on the school's front lawn, was organized again this year by Penni and Chuck Fox, whose son Creed copes with autism and is a member of this year's third-grade class.
Penni Fox said the purpose of Light It Up Blue, a national campaign promoted by Autism Speaks, is to "educate, support and advocate" on behalf of those who suffer from the neural development disorder, which is characterized by impaired social and communication skills and restricted, repetitive behavior.
Creed, for example, though intelligent and high functioning, has trouble with the give and take of conversation and a tendency toward obsession. He can tell you, for example, a great deal about laser-driven touchless car wash technology but has difficulty interacting with other children on the playground.
He is, in a word, different, and getting "normal" people – children and adults alike – to understand and accept those differences is what Light It Up Blue is all about.
"We want everyone to get the message that we are all different, and that we are also all alike," said Penni Fox, who added that she simply wants Creed and other autistic children to have the same opportunities for learning and growth as other young people.
Penni's husband, Chuck, is the girls' basketball coach at North Andrew High School. After retiring from the Air Force, he picked up a graduate degree at Northwest Missouri State University, where he was an assistant women's basketball coach under Gene Steinmeyer.
Now retired, Steinmeyer attended Friday's Light It Up Blue assembly as did several members of the Bearcats squad, including Alexis Boeh.
Alexis and her twin sister Candace have become close friends of the Fox family and occasionally babysit for Creed. During the assembly, the sisters read aloud from "Zack the Prairie Dog" by S. Charles Decker.
Decker's has two autistic sons, and the book tells the story of a young prairie dog who, though "different," helps his community overcome fear and prejudice through the power of faith, courage and friendship.
"As you can see we're all different," Candace Boeh told her young listeners, "But that doesn't mean we can't all be friends."
After the story session, a teacher turned off the lights in the Kiva as Creed held aloft a blue-bulbed lantern inscribed with the puzzle-piece Autism Speaks logo. The room was filled with a warm, soft glow caused by both the lantern and day-glow blue bracelets handed out to the children beforehand.
Page 2 of 2 - After a few moments, each child was given a helium-filled balloon to take outside and release into the hazy, spring sky. Each balloon held a card containing a child's name, information about Light It Up Blue and contact information for Penni Fox.
Last year, Fox said she received return calls and messages from children who had found the balloons across three states: Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.
It has been a difficult road for the Fox family, who began to suspect that Creed had some sort of cognitive problem as he prepared to enter kindergarten. Finally a teacher offered a tentative diagnosis, which led to testing and an eventual confirmation of Creed's condition.
One reason the Foxes moved to the Maryville area, Penni said, was because the district has a reputation for superb special education services.
In Creed's case, educators designed a split curriculum that balances mainstream classes in art, physical education, computing and music with special education courses in communication arts and mathematics.
"The district has done wonderful things," she said. "They really got on board."