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Better Winnipeg: Manitoba Moose team up with local autism program for children

Better Winnipeg: Manitoba Moose team up with local autism program for children

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba Moose have launched a month-long campaign to raise awareness for autism and funds for a program in Winnipeg that’s been helping change children’s lives.

Manitoba Moose captain John Albert and forward Nic Petan made a special visit to St. Amant Centre to play with five-year-old Ivan.

It wasn’t a game of floor hockey. They spent time laying out a train track, scoring a little time with Ivan and his tutor at St. Amant Centre.

“I love doing this stuff,” said Albert with a genuine smile.

“There’s something more to hockey. You get to see that when you hang out with Ivan.”

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Ivan is one of 200 children receiving services through the Autism Program at St. Amant Centre. The demand for services keeps growing as more children are being diagnosed with autism – a complex neurobiological condition. Children diagnosed with it often struggle with social interactions, verbal and non-verbal communication.

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Albert has a special connection to autism. While playing hockey in St. John’s with the AHL franchise, he became friends with a young man with autism and Down’s Syndrome.

“Over the last four years we’ve had a really good relationship,” sid Albert. “Like when I was in St. John’s I’d go to lunch with him once or twice a week. He’s a great kid, really funny, loves movies, loves music. He can name any song on the radio.”

“It doesn’t take long to realize just how many families and people are affected by autism whether it’s immediate family or a colleague,” said Dan Hursh, Vice President of Operations for the Manitoba Moose.

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The Manitoba Moose have dedicated the month of March to autism awareness. They’re raising money for St. Amant Centre’s autism program through several initiatives.

Special edition player puzzles are being sold at every home game this month along the MTS Centre concourse, Red River Co-op is accepting donations in exchange for a chance to win a suite to a Manitoba Moose game, and at the March 26 home game the Moose will hit the ice in one-of-a-kind autism awareness jerseys. They’ll be auctioned off both at the game and online.

This is the forth speciality jersey created by the Manitoba Moose this season. Proceeds are earmarked for various community organizations.

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The January 9 polar bear jersey supported the Assiniboine Park Conservancy Polar Bear Rescue Team, the February 13 throwback jersey from the 1996 season supported Hockey Manitoba and money raised from the wilderness camo jersey is helping send children to Camp Manitou.

Hursh said the jerseys are one way of giving back to the community and the players have a special role.

“Whether it’s Autism awareness or supporting some other cause, these guys are on a platform where we can really try to do some good in our community.”

Money raised through the Manitoba Moose Autism awareness month will help outfit a new community classroom at St. Amant Centre for pre-school aged children with Autism.

St. Amant Foundation Director Juliette Mucha said equipment like computers, specialized software, LeapFrog tablets and smartboards will make a huge difference.

“That equipment purchase can help these kids but all and future students that are going to be coming through this program as well so they have every opportunity to excel and give the parents the optimism again that they maybe have lost as they heard their child was diagnosed with autism.”

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Roy Otaki’s two youngest children have autism. A diagnosis he said was devastating.

“When they’re born you want the world for them. You want them to be pilots, astronauts, leaders of the world. But your dreams are no longer what they used to be.”

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Otaki says the intensive program his son and daughter were enrolled in through St. Amant Centre started with home tutoring secen days a week by a team of trained staff.

“After a few weeks you see oh my god he’s sitting down for 30 seconds  that’s huge, he’s actually eating at the table which we never heard of before.”

With specialized help, most families see significant changes in their child’s social, physical and communication skills.

“The village of St. Amant, the actual people who have all the passion at St. Amant helped us as parents raise our children,” said Otaki.

Awareness campaigns like this one from the Manitoba Moose and the money raised from it, is just one piece of the puzzle in helping children with autism.