Teens’ efforts raise support for autism programs

Grace Denny and Abigail Olean, founders of the Run T.O.O. Overcome 5K. /Lindsay Krone

HUNTERSVILLE – Two budding philanthropists who teamed up to improve the lives of individuals with autism have doubled their impact in just their second year.

Abigail Olean and Grace Denny, both 17-year-old juniors at Christ the King Catholic High School, founded the Run T.O.O. Overcome Autism in 2021. The second annual race was held Saturday in the Vermillion neighborhood in Huntersville.

The “T.O.O.” stands for “Together Overcoming Obstacles.” Both teens have personal connections to autism and wanted to raise awareness and funds for local autism groups.

“One of the biggest inspirations for me was my five-year-old cousin,” Olean said. “He is nonverbal and has autism. I’ve really gotten close to him and seen how he interacts with everyone and the world.”

Denny has an almost familial relationship with a young man her aunt, a teacher for the autistic community, cared for throughout his childhood.

“I kind of got exposed early on,” she said “So that was my inspiration as well.”

“Many people know of autism, the disorder, but they don’t know the unique ways many people actually deal with it,” Olean added. “They are some of the most intelligent thinkers, and there are different ends of the spectrum. We really wanted to spread awareness of that and show our support wherever we can.”

This year the 5K fun run raised more than $6,000 for the University of North Carolina TEACCH Autism Program. The program works to improve the lives of those with autism spectrum disorder through community services and occupational training. The 2021 race netted $3,000 for Autism Speaks.

The teens were grateful for the assistance of professional race director Bear Robinson, who runs the Huntersville Half Marathon and the Run White & Blue, in planning and mapping out the course that more than 50 people ran or walked. Robinson’s business, Hardcore Serious Fitness, was also one of the race sponsors.

Olean and Denny said they hope to grow the race each year, bringing in more runners, more sponsors and more funds for a variety of autism-related foundations. They plan to continue holding the race in April, which is designated Autism Acceptance Month.

Runners take off down Cinnabar Place in Vermillion at the start of the Run T.O.O. Overcome 5K. /Lindsay Krone

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