April A Time for Awareness

This April, we are raising awareness of two extremely important issues to our county and our society – autism and domestic violence. The more we know, the better we understand. I am hopeful you will join me in helping to promote education and acceptance of autism, and to work to end domestic violence in our communities.

While the causes of autism are yet unknown the challenges for people living with the disorder, and their family members, are. Autism is a complex developmental disorder that can cause learning disabilities, disruptive behaviors, speech impediments and more. The numbers are on the rise, too. The latest studies indicate that one in 68 babies born in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum.

People with autism are often misunderstood, sometimes avoided or even pitied. But like anyone else, people with autism deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It’s not just about awareness; it’s also acceptance.

We officially kicked off Autism Awareness Month during a commissioners meeting with a visit from members of the Autism Society of Westmoreland County and students from Clelian Heights School. I have organized a fundraiser for county employees to help support the Autism Society. And through the month the Courthouse Dome will be blue – the chosen color of the cause.

It is no secret that autism is personal to me. Two of our boys, Quinn and Alex, have the disorder. They are without question my inspiration, both in my job as your commissioner and in the way I try to lead my life. They have taught me to take nothing for granted, to celebrate life as it is and to never stop trying. But they also introduced me to a network of caring families, dedicated therapists and teachers, and others on the spectrum that I may have never met, let alone appreciated. For that I am so grateful. They have made me a better man. And they make our county a better place.

That’s my hope for this month – that we can all use the experiences and uniqueness of people with autism to increase our acceptance, our patience and our tolerance of every person.

This April, the focus is also on domestic and sexual violence – as disgraceful and as cowardly an act as there is. It’s an issue that rarely gets the attention it deserves until it’s too late to help the victim.

Families in Westmoreland County are not immune from domestic violence. The most recent statistics compiled by the Blackburn Center for Domestic Violence (www.blackburncenter.org) are both telling and shocking. From July 2012 through June 2013, Blackburn served 3,049 clients and received 3,564 calls to its hotline. During that same time, domestic violence victims filed 869 Protections From Abuse orders and spent 5,263 days in their shelter.

The effects of domestic violence are damaging to the victims, their families and our communities. The effects are life-threatening and long-term. It can happen to anyone in any place and is not restricted by race, gender, religion, age or sexual orientation. And there are still many myths in our society that perpetuate the problem, in addition to the continued objectification of women in our popular culture.

The Blackburn Center is the leading local advocate for ending and preventing domestic and sexual violence in Westmoreland County and has helped countless victims. Since 2011 the agency has sponsored one of the best outreach events of any kind in the area – “Walk A Mile in Her Shoes”. It puts a clever hook on a very serious issue – encouraging men to walk in high-heeled women’s shoes. I have been very proud to be the honorary chair of this event every year since its inception, and its popularity has grown every year.

The 4th Annual “Walk A Mile in Her Shoes” will be Saturday morning, April 12, beginning at St. Clair Park in downtown Greensburg. Details are available at www.blackburncenter.org/info_events.asp. More than 650 people participated last year, and it will likely be bigger than ever this year. I hope you will join me.

We have an opportunity this April to make Westmoreland County a better place. Let’s unite to treat everyone with respect and to look out for one another to help effectuate change that will last year-round.