"I started out so pessimistic about all of it, but the doors opened so easy for all of this that it felt like it was meant to be"
Giizhik Klawiter has never been so much as a visitor to the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Waisman Center, but the 10-year-old boy with autism from Hayward, Wis., is one of the most faithful supporters of the center's developmental disabilities research.
For four years, Giizhik's mother, Pam Miller, has visited Walmart, the casino, grocery stores and craft fairs to sell Christmas cards designed by Giizhik ( whose name means "white cedar" in Ojibwe ) and his brother Mino ( short for Minode'e, loosely "has a kind heart" ).
"So far we've been able to donate about $5,600 with the cards, and from the start we wanted that money to go to research," Miller says. "I know it's important for families like us to have other things - support and services - but I wanted to help research, so that we'd keep learning about autism."
Miller knows quite a bit already. The jaunty snowmen and colorful Christmas trees on Giizhik's holiday cards actually began as a kind of ad hoc therapy.
"He had just turned 6, and he drew a lot," Miller says. "Just stacks of paper - draw and flip, draw and flip, draw and flip - especially when he was nonverbal. It was an outlet for him."
One day Giizhik asked his dad, Mike Klawiter, to help him with a story about Christmas. With the assistance of a friend who works at a printing company, Miller turned the construction paper art into a greeting card. Another friend, whose mother is a special education teacher, recommended the Waisman Center as a worthy beneficiary.
"I started out so pessimistic about all of it, but the doors opened so easy for all of this that it felt like it was meant to be," Miller says.
Over his first three years as a downsized, northern Wisconsin version of Hallmark, Giizhik has sold thousands of cards on behalf of Waisman.
"I can't express how deeply we appreciate Pam and her family's efforts on behalf of the Waisman Center and our autism-related research. She and her family are an inspiration to us all," says Marsha R. Mailick, the center's director. "The proceeds from the holiday card sales contribute to the work our researchers and clinicians do to better understand autism and the ways to support individuals with autism and their families."
Just as important, Mailick says, is the Klawiters' contribution to education. Pam Miller carries Waisman brochures and a board covered with materials like "10 things every child with autism wishes you knew."
"I get to educate people about autism - this is what Giizhik does, and this is what he's like," Miller says. "When people understand what it is, they more readily accept it."
Miller steers parents and grandparents to resources available from county programs and in their schools.
"I know what they're feeling. When we found out about Giizhik, it was a while before I could even say the word without getting a lump in my throat and teary-eyed." Miller says. "We send our children into the world, and it's a scary thing. It's even more frightening when they have a disability."
The cards, and the message they carry, help Miller ease that path for her son and children like him.
"I want to teach people about Giizhik so there's more awareness and respect when they meet him and other autistic kids," she says. "It's so nice to see kids treat him like one of their own."
Giizhik Klawiter's holiday cards are now available by mail order.
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