The Eagles Autism Foundation is one of the organization’s biggest off-field efforts and year-after-year continues to garner more support from players, coaches, and the community. Chairman and CEO of the foundation is team owner Jeffery Lurie, who started the initiative in honor of his brother. Over the past four years, the foundation has raised over $12 million — of which 100 percent is donated to institutions that specialize in autism research and care.
In addition to the research projects and community grants this foundation sponsors, the Eagles take their responsibility for providing safe and sensory-appropriate environments for people on the spectrum very seriously. They’ve created a sensory room at Lincoln Financial Field for people with autism to watch games, and in the spring, reimagined the COVID-19 vaccination process in able to better serve this community.
By tailoring the vaccination process to those on the spectrum, the Eagles Autism Foundation was able to get over 1,000 people vaccinated who may have otherwise not felt comfortable getting the shots. They created visual explanations for the process and story-telling options to take away some uncertainty before they even arrived for the vaccine. The team also provided quiet spaces and sensory rooms, and were able to give individualized care to a population that has been severely impacted by the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic created unique challenges for those with autism, and as such, the Eagles Autism Foundation shifted their focus over the past 18 months to keeping a sense of community from a safe distance. This included funding programs that provided tele-health services and assessments to ensure kids continued to receive therapies, and providing online resources and activities to help families dealing with isolation, including a YouTube series, Sensory Saturdays with Max.
To date, the organization has funded 26 research projects and 17 community grants, thanks in large part to the Eagles Autism Challenge, which is an annual bike, run, and, walk event. In 2020 the event was forced to go virtual, but returned with a bang in 2021 with over 1,800 participants. This year’s fundraising initiative will continue through Sept. 30, but has so far brought in over $2.5 million.
Lurie spoke following this year’s event and emphasized the growth and impact of the foundation.
“When I first envisioned the Eagles Autism Challenge years ago, I hoped it would evolve into a powerful platform and a support system that allowed individuals with autism to live their best lives. I never imagined our community would grow to be what it is today. It’s no longer a one-day event, it’s a year-round commitment that has generated nearly $12 million dollars since just 2018 — all of which has been re-invested in the autism community. None of this would be possible without you.
While the past year presented unique challenges, particularly for those with autism, our community remained engaged and supportive. That support allowed us to continue to be responsive to the needs of families and individuals. In 2019, we launched our community grant program in order to help non-profit organizations better serve individuals with autism today. This past year, those grants supported people in the autism community facing pandemic-related challenges.
Beyond that, our research funding, once earmarked for Philadelphia-based institutions, now extends across the United States.”
Following the event, there was a big celebration with participants getting a chance to mingle with players and their families. Typically, participants also get free tickets to one of the team’s open practices, but this year’s practice was cancelled due to Hurricane Henri — still, people were offered exclusive tours of Lincoln Financial Field instead.
$2.5 million and counting...and none of it would be possible without YOU!— Eagles Autism Foundation (@eaglesautism) August 24, 2021
Thanks to all of our participants, donors, and partners for supporting the 2021 Eagles Autism Challenge! pic.twitter.com/6sMRcI5f2B
What started out as an initiative to honor Lurie’s family has really grown to be part of the Eagles’ family, and something most of the players take time to participate in and support. Team captain, veteran, and history-making speaker, Jason Kelce, went the extra mile this year, playing guest bartender back in July for a fundraising event. Kelce raised $50,000 in donations, which he and his wife Kylie then matched, for an incredible $100,000 contribution to the Eagles Autism Challenge.
“[Kelce] always has his hand up to make a difference,” Eagles Autism Foundation executive director Ryan Hammond said, according to NJ.com. “I think he understands every dollar we raise is given to the autism community. He sees the difference that we’re making in people’s lives, and he wants to be a part of it. He’s just been an incredible ambassador for us.”
Kelce explained during the event that his wife Kylie is an instructional aid who works with special needs kids, and she’s really been a driving force in the Eagles’ center getting educated about autism. He noted that spending time with her, visiting classrooms, and meeting the kids, supporting this community has become near and dear to their family.
Support for the initiative continues to grow, and with that support, the foundation announced $3.1 million in funding toward 18 new research projects aimed at transformational change for autism through eight pilot studies and 10 community grants. Funding goes through an intense review process that started with 47 letters of intent, which was whittled down to 27 proposals. Those were given impact scores and full scientific review, which resulted in the final 18 projects receiving awards.
“This past year reminded us how precious life is and how important the work of the Eagles Autism Foundation is toward bettering the lives of others,” Lurie said, according to Heavy.com. “We are especially proud to fund this year’s research projects and community grants, which have demonstrated to us the potential to transform the field of autism for families today and for those in the future.”
The funded proposals included precision cell-based therapy for seizures, an emotional expressivity study, and local programs that provide translator services to caregivers and families whose primary language isn’t English. Each of the 18 projects will also have to submit progress reports after the first year in order to secure their second year of funding.
This is just the beginning for the Eagles Autism Foundation, which in just four years has been able to make substantial strides for inclusivity of such an important community. And based on the support by the Eagles organization, fans, and greater Philadelphia area, big things are on the horizon.