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Saugonian runs to fight autism.

Saugonian runs to fight autism.

Sarah Phelan

Brendan Stapleton personally knows the benefits of hands-on training. And to show his commitment to this approach, the owner of Fitness Together Burlington and lifelong Saugus resident has organized a Boston Marathon team to raise awareness for autism.

Stapleton has enlisted the support of two mothers of autistic children to run in the April 18 Boston Marathon. The team, consisting of trainer Peter Argiros, and mothers Julie Coppenrath and Judith Ursitti, has set a fundraising goal of $20,000.

Donations to the team will go to the Nashoba Learning Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping families in the fight against autism. The plan is for the funds to benefit students aged 3 to 22 who have been diagnosed with the symptoms of autism.

“One of my best friends, Peter Argiros, is also an applied behavioral analysis therapist,” Stapleton said. “Just over a year ago, through Peter, Fitness Together became a vocational site for Nashoba Learning Group. The kids come and learn practical life skills as part of the workforce — they help with laundry and vacuuming, they learn how to wash down a mirror.”

People diagnosed with autism are often characterized by impaired social interaction and communication.

Autistic individuals can also have difficulty expressing themselves and sometimes have restricted or repetitive behaviors. Autism is not known to have a cure, however, it has been found that with intensive and sustained educational and behavioral therapy, many autistic children can decrease their symptoms severity and increase their quality of life.

Stapleton was inspired by the NLG students he had a chance to interact with at FT Burlington.

“It’s been amazing to see their progress,” Stapleton said. “Their attitudes have completely changed. Some of these kids came in and didn’t know how to plug something into the wall, but now the students learned when and how is the best way to vacuum up the offices. The kids are also so much more social — they say ‘hi’ to us now. We are definitely witnessing the benefits of the therapy.”

NLG began in January of 2003 in a leased space out of the United Methodist Church in Westford. The nonprofit is now completing an expansion project to serve 90 students at its Bedford location.

 As part of its curriculum NLG incorporates one-on-one ABA intervention with individual students throughout the day. ABA focuses primarily on socially significant behaviors and learning the procedures as to how to deal with them. The school also folds Massachusetts curriculum standards into its 216-day calendar, as well as the state assessment exams as required.

The idea to run the Boston Marathon came from Stapleton and Argiros’s mutual passion for long distance running.

“Peter and I both run recreationally,” Stapleton said. “So we figured we’d try to do something for Nashoba and help raise some funds for the school and raise awareness of autism.”

Argiros sees representing Nashoba Learning Group in the Boston Marathon as an honor.

“Working with my kids really gives me a sense of how fortunate I am to be able to help make an impact on the students and families,” Argiros said. “I have been working at Nashoba since 2006 and I have seen firsthand the giant strides all of our students have made over the past few years. I am running to help raise money for the school so they can continue to provide the best education and experiences for our students.”

Team comes together

Coppenrath’s 7-year-old daughter Helen has attended NLG since the age of 4, where she has made tremendous progress.

With the date of the 26-mile marathon fast approaching, Coppenrath acknowledged feeling a little anxious about embarking on such a big endeavor, but told the Advertiser the sacrifice will be worth it in the end.

“I have never run more than a 5K prior to this so I think about my daughter and her struggles as I push myself on those hard long runs,” Coppenrath said. “It’s the least I could do for a school that has given us and many families hope for our children’s futures.”

Stapleton has found that training has been tricky during this relentless winter.

“The cold isn’t so bad, but between the ice and dealing with sickness, the team has had it tough,” he said.

Stapleton is actually recovering from a stress fracture after taking part in two marathons earlier in the season.

“I ran two marathons in two weeks, I don’t recommend it,” Stapleton said. “But I can’t wait to get off the treadmill.”

In addition to being an NLG mom, Judith Ursitti is also the regional director of state advocacy relations at Autism Speaks.

Ursitti’s son Jack has been at NLG for three years, and she also noted how tough training has been because of the uncooperative weather.

“I have been training on the treadmill, I cannot wait for the snow to melt and get outside,” Ursitti said.

The NLG Marathon team had a fundraiser at the Pizzeria Uno at the Burlington Mall last month, receiving 20 percent of the profits.

Team members said they still have a long way to go to reach the $20,000 goal. The team is planning more fundraising activities but has yet to pin down dates.

“We’re tracking our workouts on dailymile.com and we have a Facebook event page called Brendan’s 1st Boston Marathon — Run To Erase Autism, if anyone is interested in our progress or would like to donate directly to the team,” Stapleton said.

For more information on the Nashoba Learning Group, visit http://www.nashobalearninggroup.org. For more information about Fitness Together, visit http://www.fitnesstogether.com/burlington.



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