How must I begin to compile years of advocating for societal change in a short essay? How can I allow you a glimpse into my soul and my dreams through a screen? How can I leave you feeling inspired to create change in a short anecdote?

Shop. Sell. Strut! Season 3 to benefit the Morgan Marie Michael Foundation

Hello – my name is Alyssa Lego and I am a sixteen year-old girl from Toms River, New Jersey. Three years ago, I co-established an organization called the Morgan Marie Michael Foundation to enhance the lives of individuals on the autism spectrum. My biggest inspiration is my younger brother, Michael, who has special needs. I want to give him a world where he is free to accomplish his wildest dreams, with an inclusive and accepting community to walk alongside him. I want to give him the tools and resources he needs for success, just like I have. I want my brother to live his best life, without facing adversity – I want Michael to buy an ice cream cone. Allow me to explain.

Alyssa’s brother Michael, co-founder Amanda, and Alyssa at the Paint for Autism Event to benefit the Morgan Marie Michael Foundation

It was a wintry night in the city – the kind where you would do anything to escape the February chill. On a rare outing, I was treating my brother to ice cream. We stood in line; the intense crowd was overwhelming for Michael, as he began to exhibit nervous behavior. A woman in line began to engage with me, while rolling her eyes and snickering in a mocking manner. I grabbed my brother’s hand when the woman asked, “Do you know him?” I swallowed the lump in my throat. With an immense amount of pride, I replied, “Yes, Michael is my brother.” Michael is the bravest person I know. Think of the most frightening experience you have ever had. Then, multiply that feeling by ten. After that, continue to experience it each day. Unfortunately, that is my brother’s reality – one that is experienced by an astounding amount of individuals, especially in the state of New Jersey. I want to change that.

According to Jackie Michele Breault-Straffe, a licensed behavioral specialist and owner of TB Children’s Services, “I feel like we are always raising awareness and some action has been set into place by agencies in everyday community settings, however, there are still so many out there who are unaware or in disbelief of our childrens’ daily struggles with a diagnosis of autism.”

Celebrating World Autism Day at the Dr. Herbert N Richardson 21st Century School

I want Michael to continue to move mountains of his own, with the world cheering him on along the way. Together, let’s move our own mountains. The Empire State Building goes blue on April 2nd and Autism Awareness month is acknowledged by nearly every community in the world. Why do we continue to struggle to bridge this gap? Why are we still advocating for inclusion? We have come so far, but how far have we really come? Doris Perkins, a mother raising three children on the autism spectrum, comments, “Why do people get inflection in their voice, of almost pity? Or the higher pitched voice like talking to a baby when they talk to someone who has disabilities? I am going to tell you that I personally don’t look at my kids as being … different. I do as much as possible with them, and never let them use excuses to limit themselves. I also hold them accountable. There seems to be an innate need to marginalize, you won’t get me to figure it out.”

Celebrating World Autism Day at the Dr. Herbert N Richardson 21st Century School

As a sister to a brother with special needs, I feel a fraction of how caregivers often feel when facing the community, all the while attempting to aid their child. I had the pleasure of connecting with Edward Sidley, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. I am grateful for the opportunity to network and brainstorm with so many like-minded individuals throughout this journey. I asked Edward about how we can truly turn awareness into action to foster cultural change and what it will take to accomplish this in society. Edward says, “But to truly move the needle it will take our future leaders, who are still in school, who have grown up with peers and siblings with autism by their side, to make the wide sweeping changes necessary on a public policy level. It is these young leaders who will shift our society from awareness to true acceptance.” The potential for change is in our hands. Let’s start now.

Shop. Sell. Strut! Event logo

The Morgan Marie Michael Foundation has a mission to assist individuals on the autism spectrum with opportunities, appliances, and channels for enhanced living. Through our iCan iPad Gift Experience, we provide iPads, protective cases, and essential learning software to people living with autism. Throughout the year, my co-founder Amanda and I deliver our tailored lesson plan called “Friends Who Are Different” to elementary schools across the east coast. We participate in 365 fundraising with our signature event called “Shop. Sell. Strut!” Our movement catapults societal change in tandem with year-round social media challenges and our renowned international ambassador program. We are proud to have 40 ambassadors, who work tirelessly to spread our message and lift it to the heavens. Being successful in philanthropy is all about the village and our collection of people; the growth of the Morgan Marie Michael Foundation has been remarkable in the past three years and “grateful” is an understatement.  While our growth is astonishing, we have yet a long way to climb. How can you help?

Shop. Sell. Strut! Season 3 to benefit the Morgan Marie Michael Foundation

You do not have to break the bank or be a media mogul to become a catalyst for change. Share our movement on social media (check us out by searching #strutforautism or @shopsellstrut.) Become inspired by the difference. Go out of your comfort zone. Experience the motivation behind the desire to be apart of something greater than yourself. Creating a positive environment for individuals with disabilities is much like an ice cream shop. It takes a supportive staff, various different flavors, proper technology, and enthusiastic customers. It is by appreciating and celebrating the different “flavors” that exist in our communities that we can walk this road of change, hand in hand. I look forward to the day  that we can all enjoy an ice cream cone together.