A self-proclaimed “numbers guy,” Zachary Brooks likes to rattle off facts and figures. Autism, the 12-year-old Summit boy reminds us, affects 1 in 28 boys in New Jersey. Nationwide, 1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum.
The numbers hit home. Zachary’s fraternal twin brother, Jack, was diagnosed with autism when the boys were 3½.
As Zachary began to understand his brother’s condition, he decided he had to take action. “I know that everybody only gets to live once,” Zachary says. “I thought it wasn’t fair to [Jack] that he had to have autism, but other kids don’t have to. I felt so bad for him and I had to do something about it.”
Zachary set out to raise autism awareness with his aunt Donna Puzella, owner of Sweet Nothings, a candy, gourmet-food and gifts boutique in Summit. “I had a modest number [of local businesses] that signed up to participate with me, but when Zach decided to join and went around asking businesses, the numbers dramatically increased,” she says.
These days, Zachary can be seen in Summit raising funds for the national advocacy organization, Autism Speaks, or tying blue ribbons (signifying autism awareness) around trees at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School, where the seventh-grader is an honor-roll student and a member of the diversity council.
Thanks to Zachary’s efforts, many downtown Summit businesses display posters in their storefronts promoting autism awareness and donate a percentage of their sales to Autism Speaks.
Zachary also brings his message to his peers. He organized an autism awareness month at his middle school and made autism presentations at his school and nearby Oratory Preparatory School. “If he can reach kids now,” says Puzella, “they’ll grow up with a better understanding and be more tolerant. Starting at this level is the way to build acceptance.”
The work has been rewarding. “The best part,” Zachary says, “is the satisfaction I feel and the amount I believe I’m helping.”Click here to leave a comment