It started with a poem: "Luke has autism./It's O.K./Autism is just a different way of thinking./It's fun to play with him because he is so fast./All the time he runs everywhere./I love to chase him."
Three years ago, Cole Faller, then 10, wrote these lines about classmate Luke Greenfield, who is autistic. They met in a class designed to integrate students who have disabilties with peer mentors who do not.
The two quickly became close, and their friendship inspired Cole to do something that would both educate other kids about autism and raise money for autism-related causes.
He came up with the idea of a flag football tournament, and Go Long For Luke was born.
Cole teamed up with his twin brother, Jesse, Luke's twin sister, Sophie, and their parents to organize the event. Sophie was especially enthusiastic about the project and became a driving force.
"It was really nice for my daughter Sophie because nobody really embraced her brother before these two boys," says Luke and Sophie's mom, Sandi.
That both pairs of siblings are twins also helped the foursome establish a close bond.
"We think it's cool and funny that Sophie and Luke are twins," Jesse says. "We're all just a group of friends who love each other."
That first year around 100 kids participated, raising several thousand dollars. The event grew the next year, and the New York Jets honored Jesse and Cole. Players — including Muhammad Wilkerson and Santonio Holmes — presented the boys with special plaques.
The third-annual Go Long For Luke took place in September in East Hills, New York, and 147 kids participated. Hundreds of spectators showed up, and a DJ, photo booth, and carnival games provided additional entertainment.
In total the event raised over $25,000. Much of the money will be used to help establish group homes for young adults with autism who have aged out of the school system. The Greenfields hope Go Long For Luke will eventually be able to create two new group homes on Long Island.
Still, fundraising is only half the reason for the event. Just as important are raising awareness and spreading the message of inclusiveness in Cole's original poem, which became something of a rallying cry for Go Long For Luke.
In that way Sophie knows the event has been a success: "People love Luke, and they accept him for who he is."
Visit the Go Long For Luke website to learn more about the program
Photos: Michael J. Lebrecht II for Sports Illustrated