When Nicholas Wingler’s son, Kieran, was diagnosed with autism at age 5, he turned to the nonprofit founded by Legionnaire Gary Weitzen, Parents of Autistic Children (POAC), for guidance and resources. “When your child is diagnosed as being autistic, you don’t know which way to go or what to do,” said Wingler, a past New Jersey Sons of The American Legion detachment commander. “So you rely on people willing to help you, and this organization was fantastic in helping us.”
Following his son’s diagnosis, Wingler realized there wasn’t a lot of activities in the community of Brick, N.J., for autistic children to do. This sparked an idea – to host a fun, safe event for children with autism and their families.
On Sept. 9, the Ocean County American Legion Family held its eighth annual picnic with POAC for children with autism and their families. A record attendance of over 680 autistic children and their families spent the day eating, jumping on inflatables, playing carnival games, winning prizes, having their picture taken with costumed characters like Mickey Mouse and Bluey and Star Wars characters dressed up by the 501st Legion, eating ice cream, interacting with firefighters, firetrucks and police officers, listening to live music and more. All at no-cost to the families.
“Every year that this event goes on it truly hits me in my heart,” Wingler said. “At times I've cried, and I teared up seeing the event that we've done because I know it's our Legion Family. It's what we do here in Ocean County. We believe in helping, we believe in what we do.”
The event is held at VFW Post 8867 in Brick, N.J., because it sits on over two acres of land that’s fenced-in for safety and has a pavilion to feed the families under. “If there ever were to be a situation where a kid would get spooked or scared and they decide to run, the only thing they're going to is the fence,” Wingler said. “They can't get any further than the fence, and the only way in and out of the property is through the front gate which is manned by (Legion Family) volunteers to make sure nobody goes out that isn't supposed to.” And for liability purposes, Wingler said POAC provides the liability insurance.
The day of celebration is open to any family in the state with an autistic child, a reason the event has grown from around 300 children its first year to 685. This year “is the first time we have ever ran out of supplies and had to run to the store to buy more stuff. It’s a fantastic problem to have, I tell you.”
Wingler emphasized that the event is truly for the entire family. “The one thing that we do encourage is it's not solely for the autistic child. It's a day for the family to be able to come out and enjoy the day together because there's not always a lot of venues where the autistic child and the neurotypical child can go and do the same event and play together and do the same thing. So we highly encourage that if you have an autistic child in your family and you're coming, that you don't exclude your neurotypical child. We encourage you to bring them as well.”
Kieran, who is now 20 and a Sons of The American Legion life member, looks forward to the event every year and calls it “daddy’s carnival,” Wingler said. “My son absolutely loves it. He loves seeing the people he knows through POAC.”
The funds for the picnic are raised every year through donations from American Legion posts, Auxiliary units and Sons squadrons from Ocean County and throughout New Jersey. “This is nice as more and more people see what we’re doing,” Wingler said, adding that the Department of New Jersey commander, detachment commander and Auxiliary president are always invited to the event. “The more people I keep inviting to see what's going on, they're just truly amazed at what we're doing.”
Any funds or food left over from putting on the picnic go to support the families of autistic children who are financially in need. “We are totally about giving back what we have,” Wingler said. “We don't make a single dime. Anything that's brought in, 100 percent of it goes directly to taking care of these kids and the event every single year.”
For an event that was supposed to be one-and-done eight years ago but has remained thanks to the persistence and dedication of the Ocean County Legion Family, Wingler is looking forward to the ninth annual picnic for children with autism next September, where he hopes to incorporate rides like spinning teacups and electronic rides.
“During the event every year when people make their speeches, they always say it’s because of me,” Wingler said, referring to the day of celebration for children with autism. “I always tell them it’s not because of me. I’m the man who had the idea that said, ‘let’s do this’. It’s because of the people that volunteer every year to come out and do it is the reason why we’re able to do it. If I didn’t have the backing of the Ocean County Legion Family, the event would have never happened.”