Seeking Connections

April is Autism Acceptance Month but the John Maloney Project is getting an early start.

When the quack came back to Brown’s Island last summer after a decade-long hiatus, thousands of people gathered to witness the RVA Duck Race.

What may not be common knowledge is that it was the Autism Society of Central Virginia (ASCV) who brought all those little yellow duckies back to the James River.

Besides the $10,000 prize for the first duck to cross the finish line, the organization also hosted a Festival of Inclusion that day. It was Richmond’s first sensory-friendly festival featuring music, family activity zones, vendors, and local food but specifically designed to include and accommodate individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. The quiet zone, located on the grassy hill overlooking the canal, even allowed attendees to escape the noise when it became overwhelming.

The ASCV is dedicated to improving the lives of people in the autism community through a variety of services, support, community education and advocacy. With over 365 programs per year, they’re able to serve over 7,000 participants annually. “The demand for services is higher than ever,” explains executive director Ann Flippin. “We try to fill the void with camps, social groups, family outings and adult programs.”

April is Autism Acceptance Month, but one of ASCV’s signature programs, the John Maloney Project, kicks off its spring session earlier on Sunday, March 26 and runs through the end of April. The program is named after the late John Maloney, who was a reporter for Style Weekly from 1993 through 1997. A graduate of Collegiate School, Maloney returned to the campus in 2006, proposing a spring and fall program that would pair student volunteers with autistic children ages 5 to 21 for Sunday afternoon socializing and recreational activities.

Maloney knew firsthand the myriad challenges parents face trying to find places for physical exercise and fun that also welcome children with autism and, as an athlete, he understood the importance of fitness. The program was called Open Gym to emphasize its inclusive nature. Collegiate students volunteered in numbers because they liked playing games with their buddies but also because Maloney was well-loved. He also lobbied for legislative changes with the Virginia Autism Project, earning him the nickname “autism warrior dad.”

An ASCV board member, Jennifer Barnum and her family have been members for many years and her 18-year-old son Eli has participated in the John Maloney Project since the age of five. She originally enrolled him in the Maloney Project after seeking out a program that would give him the opportunity to interact with his peers as well as keep him active.

“I’d heard wonderful feedback from parents saying how much they enjoyed the program at Collegiate School,” she says. “I was amazed at how the student volunteers truly engaged and got to know my son and all the other children.”

Barnum recalls that when she first started taking Eli to the Maloney Project, he had a hard time connecting with people and preferred to walk around the Collegiate campus and look at doors to satisfy his then-fascination with doors and doorknobs. These days, Eli interacts completely with his Collegiate buddies, spending an hour walking the track and getting to know each other before playing on the playground equipment and shooting hoops. Over the years, he’s developed meaningful relationships and friendships with his buddies. “Eli begs me to sign him up every spring and fall for JMP,” Barnum says. “He even says that when he graduates high school, he may want to work at Collegiate.”

The five-week series pairs 30 to 40 kids with autism with Collegiate students based on their shared interests. The Maloney Project has proved to be a strong incentive to get students to volunteer. “We have so many Collegiate kids volunteering that sometimes it’s a 2-to-1 ratio,” Flippin says with pride. “It’s an opportunity for students to develop leadership qualities.”

For 21 years, the ASCV has presented a 5k and family fun day, with this years’ event happening on May 20. The RVA Duck Race on Brown’s Island takes place Aug. 5 and has drawn as many as 7,000 people to watch the fun and participate. Flippin says the event also helps promote understanding and acceptance of those with autism, a necessity given the barriers that exist in communities for those on the spectrum.

“Our goal is to make sure anyone impacted by autism knows they can reach out and be part of our community,” Flippin says. “We support the community by making sure families know they’re not alone.”

Eli Barnum has been absorbing that message for 13 years now. He’s quick to share how much he enjoys hanging out with his buddies at Collegiate to talk about school, movies and Disneyworld.

“I loved meeting Lauren and Chloe,” Eli says. “It’s changed me because now I’ve made friends that go to a different school.”

The John Maloney Project runs March 26 through April 30. For other events, programs and information, visit


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