By JOSH Stipanovich
One 6-year-old Lorain boy took advantage of a special opportunity — win one for the people he has been surrounded by his entire life.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” DiAnn Winchel said in reference to watching her stepson Joshua Hurlbut wrestle. “My heart beats really fast.” But this time, it was special.
Joshua was up against some pretty good competition in this year’s Wrestle Against Autism event April 28 at Olentangy Orange High School just north of Columbus. Joshua won his first match and continued winning.
When he eventually won his 50-pound weight group, Winchel was simply proud. But it wasn’t because he won. She was proud because of who and what he was doing it for — autistic children and their families.
Winchel is employed at the Creative Learning Workshop in Warren, and she works closely with intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals. She’s been in the field for 13 years, she said.
Joshua has, inevitably, been around disabled people his whole life. He’s had the chance to interact with them because of his stepmother’s job.
“[Joshua] embraces people no matter what,” Winchel said. “He’s just a good kid.”
Winchel recalled a time that late-April weekend outside Columbus. A mother brought her 8-year-old son, who Winchel said was severely autistic, to the booth where Winchel and Joshua were working. Joshua visited with the autistic boy, talked to him and told him about his journey to his championship medal, Winchel said. Joshua also helped gather donations for the event, Winchel said.
“Wrestling is a sport with a tight-knit family,” Winchel said.
Now, that family extends to the autistic community and its families on a yearly basis.
When 25-year-old Cortland native Lyndi Schrecengost heard about the event, she was intrigued.
“It is such a neat way to raise money, and it is comforting to know that proceeds will be donated locally,” Schrecengost said in an email.
Schrecengost works with Winchel at CLW and volunteered with the event.
This year marked the sixth annual Wrestle Against Autism, and Jeff Sitler, the event’s director, said the idea came after some basic research revealed some correlations between autism and boys.
That’s when Sitler and a committee of more than 30 wrestling officials never affected by autism, decided that wrestling, a sport dominated mainly by boys, would be the chosen event, Sitler said. “I couldn’t imagine that being my life 24/7,” he said.
According to autismspeaks.org, autism affects one in 88 children, and one in 54 of those cases are in boys. Boys are also almost five times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
The event started in 2008 and initially was geared toward raising money and awareness for breast and prostate cancer, Sitler said.
“When you think breast and prostate cancer, you’re thinking older people,” Sitler said. “[We were] trying to bring it back to a kid’s level because ... you don’t read about that.”
As of Monday evening, this year’s event has raised more than $38,000, which will be donated to the Ethan Foundation for Autism, 4 Paws for Ability, and other family needs.
“We’re trying very hard not to move backward,” Sitler said. “We try to grow and improve every year.”
And that’s just what Sitler and the countless others involved have done. Last year, they raised $32,000.
Sitler will continue to enjoy making phone calls to the families affected by autism who will receive money or items from the event, even though Sitler has no idea how their lives have been affected.
“It’s humbling and rewarding at the same time,” Sitler said. “It still doesn’t register with me what they go through on a daily basis.”