A lighthouse sits on a patch of green near the water.
Families enjoy the sun at the Shoreline Aquatic Park in Downtown Long Beach. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, and part of that celebration of inclusion is the Best Buddies Friendship Walk in Long Beach on Sunday at Shoreline Aquatic Park.

The Best Buddies Friendship Walk is an effort to raise money and support inclusion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities including autism. The organization has already raised over $130,000 from individuals and companies who plan on attending.

“We’ve reached out to friends, family and people here in Long Beach to come down and take a walk, and then hopefully they’ll learn more about this,” Long Beach resident and donor Bryan Meckelborg said. “This is an awesome event that a lot of people can participate in. A lot of students want to get involved in stuff like this and you just have to share it with them.”

Meckelborg is walking with members of the CARD (Center for Autism & Related Disorders) team, which is made up of employees and supporters.

“The most important thing is awareness that there are solutions and providers like CARD out there to provide services,” said Elle Mollet, who is the Operations Manager for CARD in Torrance. “For a long time, autism wasn’t covered by insurance companies. It’s really important to me that these families know that there are services out there that are there for them and that we hear them and that we don’t have to suffer alone.”

Best Buddies organizes these friendship walks around the country, where thousands participate to support the nonprofit. CARD and Best Buddies have a national partnership with 167 locations around the county that provide therapy and other services.

“One in 36 children are diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum, and that’s up from one in 44 five years ago, which is astonishing,” said Chris Boult, who is the Chief Information Officer for CARD and Board Chair for Best Buddies in North Texas.

“Right now 85% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are either under or unemployed,” Boult added. “(We try to) show a path forward for friendships, jobs, leadership and true independent living.”

Participants can donate online or at Shoreline Aquatic Park on Sunday, where Emmy-nominated artist Garin Flowers will be the emcee before the short pleasure walk by the water. Organizers hope that people who need help, and people who want to give that assistance, can come together to spread autism awareness. People are also encouraged to bring their dogs for a walk.

Mollet and other CARD employees will be near the entrance with matching shirts on to answer any questions.

“Come find us and walk with us and just support,” she said. “I want a presence with people showing up for this and showing these kids and these families that we hear them and we’re here for them. They’re not on their own anymore.”

Opening ceremonies at Shoreline Aquatic Park are scheduled to start at 10 a.m., and the event lasts until 12 p.m.

The Best Buddies Friendship Walk will be held Sunday, April 30, at Shoreline Aquatic Park from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Donate to support the event here.