Photo: San Antonio Express News
In San Antonio, volunteers are getting together to make the world's biggest blanket fort to highlight autism awareness.
The idea for the blanket fort
So, how did people decide to gather to build the world's biggest blanket fort? As many of history's most influential decisions have been made, some students in a dorm room got to talking.
In February of 2016, when she was just 23, Lauren Conn and her roommates at Texas Women's University in Denton were scrolling through Facebook, just like any other night. However, they stumbled upon Guinness World Record holders, and some of the most outlandish accomplishments some of them have had.
Then, they realized that maybe they could become the next world record holders. However, they had to find the perfect idea to get them into the famous book. Conn explained what came next, "I'm not sure why, but I thought, let's do the largest blanket fort in the world, and because I have been focusing on kids with autism in music therapy, let's do it all to raise awareness and maybe some money." At the time, Conn was studying music therapy, and had coincidentally been looking for a way to get more involved in assisting those with autism.
Once she decided that she would dedicate her efforts to making the blanket fort a reality, she started talking to a friend she had made in her childhood, Issac Shamas. He was 27 with a Masters degree from Texas A&M-San Antonio in business administration, so he would be an excellent addition to the team. Together, the duo who met at MacArthur High began to write to San Antonio autism groups.
This quickly became a passion project
Despite not being on the spectrum themselves, both Conn and Shamas identify with the autism community due to specific physical and psychological challenges they both endure. While different, they feel misunderstood by the outside world and unable to sufficiently express their experiences to those around them. As a result, the blanket fort building became particularly dear to their hearts.
Conn described why this was so important to her, "You have to be passionate about something ... No one in my family has autism, but as I asked around with my friends almost nobody could really explain what it was. They would say, 'Um, like kids are awkward.' So I knew then that we needed to simply raise awareness."
Of course, autism is so much more than just "kids being awkward." With one in every 68 children diagnosed with the spectrum in the United States, it impacts more than 3 million people. It is a neurological and biological disorder that impacts one's ability to engage in "normal" social behavior and communication.
Although they were extremely dedicated to their project, the group knew they would not be able to do it alone, so they began to reach out to experts within their community. They found Cynthia Hamilton, who is the development director of the Autism Treatment Center, and Melanie Cawthon, who is the director of DisabilitySA, to name a few. Gordon Hartman, a supporter of special-needs causes, was also a centerpiece in the project.
Their plan was not going to come to fruition on its own, and it was important for others in the community to get involved. Thousands of blankets were donated, and some of the top donators were the Rotary Club, Clothesline Cleaners, Starbucks, and MacArthur High's MacTEACH program.
Once the blankets were available, they had to become ready for the fort. Therefore, they were stitched together - not with threat, but with fishing lines. In the end, the blanket was 5,500 square feet long.
The blanket was not all that was necessary, as a giant blanket is just a giant blanket if laid on the floor. It was important to build an area where it could be hung to create an actual fort. The group created a "cage like" grid made out of PVC pipe to attain this accomplishment, and it spanned around 3,000 feet of pipe.
The volunteers began building at Toyota Field. They started on the soccer pitch, and everyone was busy rushing back and forth with plastic twist-ties. They knew that the next day would be very windy, so they had to ensure that the structure would be secure.
The creation was to be officially shown at AccessAbility Fest, which happens every year. It is a resource fair and volunteers estimated that around 4,000 attendees would be present, along with 120 exhibitors - a perfect amount to see the record breaking blanket fort to raise awareness. However, it was not just 4,000 people who would see the fort. Despite the importance of that number, social media enabled the movement to go so much farther than just the people who were physically present. Many would take pictures of the fort and post it to their social media accounts, along with information about the world record and raising awareness. From there, all their friends from different areas of the world would be able to get involved via the internet.
The festival was free, beginning at 8 in the morning, and the fort was unveiled at 12:45. Everyone seemed to enjoy the event, but it was a lot more than just fun and games. Although, there was lots of fun and games, with mascots and entertainment for all sorts of people, young and old, with varying abilities. However, there were also health screenings at the event to assist those in attendance, for free.
It was so important to raise awareness, not only for those who are not directly impacted by autism to have more compassion and understanding, but for families that were newly afflicted. The transition can be very complicated and difficult, so Conn wanted people to be aware of the resources that are there for them that they might not otherwise utilize. There are many autism groups throughout America that serve different purposes that can be extremely useful to families, such as Els for Autism (of professional golfer Ernie Els), Autism Society of America, and Autism Speaks. It can be difficult to navigate a new diagnosis, and these groups (and hundreds more) are there specifically to help. However, if people are unaware of their presence or of the fact that they themselves can easily access their services, they will be unlikely to participate. That's why Conn wanted to have representatives at the event who could seek out families directly, and raise awareness for those who might be unaware of what is available to them. After all, that is specifically what the groups are for, and they are more than happy to help.
You might be wondering what happened to the giant blanket fort after it was unveiled; surely it cannot sit there forever, right? Correct. The PVC pipes were donated to Habitat for Humanity while the blankets were donated to Haven for Hope.
However, it was not just the physical structure of the blanket fort that was donated. The festivities surrounding the record-breaking fort raised funds as well. Conn's goal was to reach $1.1 million, and she succeeded. The funds were met by a grant, and went towards creating a brand new 20,000 square foot learning and opportunity center at the Autism Treatment Center.