Thursday, January 10, 2008

Autism to get spotlight at Cherry Hill East show
BARBARA S. ROTHSCHILD
Courier-Post

The steaming hot java, tea and cocoa aren't the main reasons that patrons flock to the once-a-year East Coffee House.

The annual fundraiser in the Cherry Hill High School East cafeteria, hosted by the school's East Singers and Thespian Society, features students whose talents in the fine and performing arts take center stage -- and also turns the spotlight on a worthy cause that always hits home.

"Every year we pick a different organization," said East Singers Vice President Hayley Cohen, 17, a senior soprano.

Cherry Hill East's third annual coffee house Saturday will benefit Just 2 Moms, an autism awareness organization formed by two Cherry Hill women whose sons have the disorder.

CHRIS LaCHALL/Courier-Post
Choral director Laurie Lausi rehearses Cherry Hill East students on Tuesday in preparation for their annual fundraiser. Saturday's show, "Everybody Fits,' will benefit an autism awareness organization.

The first coffee house raised more than $8,000 for Alex's Lemonade Stand, an organization that funds pediatric cancer research. It was chosen because a member of East Singers had a brother with leukemia.

Last year, the event raised $5,000 for the Ian Oliu Foundation for Life, dedicated to furthering mental health awareness/crisis prevention and education initiatives. The foundation was established by the family of Oliu, an East student who took his own life in 2002.

This time, students are tackling autism, a neurological disorder that may affect one in 150 children and has no known cure. The disorder is often characterized by social detachment, heightened senses and the tendency to obsess on one thing.

The teens were drawn to Just 2 Moms, whose founders -- Debbie Schmidt and Christy Carlson -- developed a DVD on the topic narrated by Schmidt's son Jordan, 12. The pair give presentations in Cherry Hill schools, seeking to raise understanding among other youngsters.

Cohen said she baby-sat for Carlson's son, Erik, 6, who has the disorder. Another East Singer, junior soprano Caitlin Weaver, 16, said she has a cousin who was just diagnosed with it.

Along with East Singer Katerina Madson, Cohen will sing Ingrid Michaelson's "The Way I Am," with lyrics that talk about accepting people as they are.

Former Miss New Jersey Erica Scanlon of Pitman, whose younger sister has autism, will sing and speak about her Miss America platform, autism advocacy and awareness. Jordan Schmidt, a sixth-grader at Rosa International Middle School , will read his original poem, "Living with Autism."

While most of the 27 acts involve singing or instrumental performances, there also will be a stand-up comic routine and ballet en pointe. Each act has a thematic link to understanding autism, often viewed as a puzzle in which the pieces don't quite fit.

In fact, this year's event has been dubbed "Everybody Fits."

"Even people with autism can lead a normal life," said East Singers President Richie Sklar, 17, a senior tenor.

Art students Emily Grossman and Susan Song designed a logo incorporating a swirling ribbon of puzzle pieces and musical notes, which has been transferred onto T-shirts being worn by coffee house participants and for sale at the event.

The price of admission, $5, covers beverages, entertainment and an autism-logo puzzle pin. The pins were assembled by East students and members of STAR, a Lenape High School club devoted to autism research. Mount Laurel students who belong to STAR also donated boxes of hot chocolate.

In addition to the T-shirts, patrons can buy pottery and jewelry crafted by East art students and baked goods.

"The bake sale is really great because it gets everyone involved," said East Singers alto Shanny Shmuel, 17, a senior who makes peanut-butter brownies.

In all, about 100 students are participating in the coffee house in some fashion.

East Singers Director Laurie Lausi said the students have been looking forward to this event since the last one ended.

"They love to use their talents to give back to the community. They're determined to see that the money they raise impacts the students of the Cherry Hill School District first," Lausi said.

Debbie Schmidt said the money will help her and Carlson to reproduce and distribute their DVD and expand Just 2 Moms.

"This will take us to the next step and help us make this a national program. I'm tickled and humbled that the students picked us. It's an extreme honor," she said.

Reach Barbara S. Rothschild at (856) 486-2416 or brothschild@courierpostonline.com  

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