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East Islip run/walk attracts 1,000 for autism fundraising

The 10th annual four-mile Jigsaw Run, which began

The 10th annual four-mile Jigsaw Run, which began at the East Islip Marina down Bayview Avenue on Sunday, April 24, 2016, raised more than $30,000 for local autism programs, organizers said. Credit: Ed Betz

More than 1,000 people congregated Sunday at the East Islip Marina for a four-mile race supporting children with autism.

The 10th annual Jigsaw Run, hosted by the EJ Autism Foundation, raised more than $30,000 for local autism programs, race director and founder Bea Huste-Petersen said.

“It’s so powerful that people are recognizing the importance of supporting children with autism,” said Huste-Petersen, a mother of two autistic children who lives in East Islip. “Our ultimate purpose is to create awareness.”

Some 1,140 people walked and ran the course on Bayview Avenue, complete with an Elvis impersonator at the halfway mark and a scenic finish at the Great South Bay.

Holbrook resident Nicholas Pandolfo, 17, was the men’s overall winner with a time of 21:39. Bayport resident Leonora Petrina, 33, was the women’s overall winner with a time of 23:35.

Many runners and walkers participated in teams, running for family members and friends with autistic children.

About 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired communication and social interaction, with symptoms that can vary greatly.

Michele Iallonardi of Hauppauge walked with her three sons and husband to support the cause. Her husband pushed their 14-year-old autistic son, Jackson, in a wheelchair.

“EJ has helped my family and tons of school districts around here,” Iallonardi, 42, said. “To know that the money raised today goes back to help individuals with autism is what matters.”

Huste-Petersen and her late husband founded EJ Autism Foundation in 2006 to honor their sons Eric, now 13, and Jack, now 15, who were both diagnosed with autism at an early age. The nonprofit fundraises for programs supporting autistic children on Long Island, such as Spectrum Design Foundation, Rolling Thunder and Brookhaven Learning Foundation.

“All the money we raise stays here on Long Island and takes care of our kids now,” Huste-Petersen said.

Brianna O’Connor, 15, who has autism, said this was her third year at the Jigsaw Run, explaining that she was proud to have completed the race in 55 minutes. Her father, Tom O’Connor, said she was “really focused” and had a talent for running. In the past, Brianna has been joined by her brother Ryan, 12, who also has autism.

“It’s very emotional sometimes seeing that you’re not the only one who is going through this,” said Tom O’Connor, 50, of Moriches. “When I see all these people here it makes me feel better. . . . It’s a very, very big perspective.”

At the marina, Ralph and Virginia Zanchelli of Bay Shore were part of a large crowd of spectators waiting for their friends and family to cross the finish line. The pair have an autistic grandson Michael, 11, who has a dizzying mind for electronics, they said.

“We’re here to support him and everybody to get any help we can for autism in this country,” Ralph Zanchelli, 72, said. “We’re hoping they find a magic cure for it and [we’re] praying.”

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