Raising funds for autism awareness

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The South Orange Police Department began fundraising for autism awareness three years ago, selling patches and then T-shirts in April, which is Autism Awareness Month.

They upped their game this year though with SOPD officers squaring off against members of the Seton Hall University Women’s Basketball Team for an Autism Acceptance Basketball Fundraiser Exhibition Game.

The $4,200 raised at the event was handed over in a ceremonial check passing last week to Nadine Wright-Arbubakkr, founder of East Orange-based Nassan’s Place, which focuses on serving families in underserved areas like Irvington, East Orange and Newark.

“We had such a great time,” said Seton Hall Women’s Head Basketball Coach Anthony Bozzella. “We’re going to make it bigger and better next year. I’m going to have the band, the dance team, it will be bigger and better.”

Sgt. Nicholas Lonero began the department’s autism fundraising efforts three years ago, selling patches with the autism puzzle logo on them. The department raised $2,400 that year and Lonero did some research on where best to donate that money. He found Nassan’s Place, where the motto is “We can’t stop the diagnosis, but we can help the families affected by it.”

The organization was founded 12 years ago by Nadine Wright-Arbubakkr, mother of an autistic child. The nonprofit corporation aims to make a difference in the lives of children and families affected by autism in and around under-served communities by providing educational and recreational programs, social outings, and resources.
Wright-Arbubakkr, whose son is now 19, didn’t want other parents to struggle to find affordable programs and services as she did.

“The doctor told me my son was autistic but I had no directions,” Wright-Arbubakkr said. “I had to find out everything on my own.”

The relationship that has developed with Nassan’s Place since that initial donation has worked out well for both organizations, according to South Orange Police Chief Ernesto Morillo.

“It’s a relationship that’s mutually beneficial,” Morillo said.”We call Nadine when we have a situation” involving an autistic person.

“Nadine is part of the family here,” Lonero said. “We have a problem, we go to her.”

Morillo said that when he became police chief in 2022 he made strong relations with the community a priority.

“We need to build true relationships with people who help us do our jobs,” Morillo said. “As we interact with members of the community, we get to see what’s impacting them at home.”

One of the things we have seen is autism. What can we do to help people dealing with it every day?”

Being able to have honest conversations has helped officers in the department understand how to work with people who have autism, Morillo said.

Morillo said that he runs into Seton Hall Women’s Head Basketball Coach Anthony Bozzella from time to time and the coach has frequently offered to help the department with “anything you need.”

“Some people say that but Coach Bozzella was sincere and genuine in his offer,” Morillo said.

April is Autism Awareness Month but the Seton Hall women’s team made it into the postseason so there was not time for a game that month so it was played in May at Seton Hall’s Walsh Gymnasium.

Bozzella said that when he is recruiting players for the team, he is often asked what’s so special about Seton Hall.

“It’s the people,” he said. “Seton Hall is a community of great people. Our girls were excited for this. Next year we’ll build on it.”

Lonero said the buy in from the department on autism awareness has been 100%.

“Everyone in the South Orange Police Department did something,” Lonero said.

Wright-Arbubakkr thanked the department on behalf of Nassan’s place, noting a lot of effort went into putting the game together.

“I call you guys earthly angels,” she said.

Her thanks went beyond the game. She mentioned a recent incident in which her son had gotten upset and out of control. She called SOPD and officers came and helped out. The situation was resolved but she noted things could have gone differently.

“My son is a 6, 6, African American. If you have a 6 foot, six African American charging at you” things can go very bad, she said.

“We’re supposed to be the experts but we don’t have all the answers,” she added. “Thank you, each and everyone of you, for what you do.”

Nassans Place is based in East Orange but serves children from all over. In addition to helping with autism related issues, some families they work with are also dealing with food insecurity and homelessness.

“It’s overwhelming,” Wright-Arbubakkr said. “That’s why we have to get them help. We’ve got to do more as a community, state, country.”

The money raised at the game will go to pay for scholarships to the autism summer camps run by Nassan’s Place, which plans to honor Chief Moriillo at its annual gala in October.

Bozzella, who was accompanied by Shakena Richardson, a former member of the team now playing professionally in Spain, and Azana Baines, director of operations for basketball, gave a signed ball to Wright-Arbubakkr.

As for the game itself, the South Orange Police Department started out hot but the women’s team won with ease.

“I went to get a drink of water, I looked up and we were down by 20,” said Officer Darrell Terry Jr. who played in the game. “It was a great game though, we were proud to be a part of it. Seton Hall showed us a lot of love.”