West Essex Grad Starts Autism Charity, Holds Inaugural Fundraiser

By  Dawn M Chiossi

    April is Autism Awareness Month and North Caldwell’s Mission Team 94 hosted their first Color Run on April 7th, inspiring people of all ages to have a good time, get outside to enjoy the spring weather, and benefit this great cause.


    All proceeds were donated to continuing education to benefit young adults dealing with Autism.


    Building hope, one smile at a time, Team 94’s mission is to provide continuing education for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder in critical areas. These include daily living, community participation, vocation, leisure and recreation. They strive to provide the most innovative and productive services so that their members have the opportunity to pursue life’s journeys.



   This event was much more than your standard one-mile Color Walk/Run, it’s about inspiring others. Mission Team 94 was inspired by Michael John Sabato, a West Essex Grad, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder himself.


    Sabato was part of a football program since he had been in middle school. The number 94 had an extra special meaning to him because he wore that number as a member of the West Essex High School Football team.


   According to mother, Nicole Sabato, her son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was 22 months old. At the time, that diagnosis was vastly different than it is today. “We didn’t know what that meant,” Sabato shares candidly.  “It was like being transplanted into a foreign country, where you couldn’t speak the language, didn’t know the culture or customs. We were so unprepared. It was very much a learn as you go experience.”  


    Learn as you go, they did. Soon they realized that there was not much out there for people with Autism and Sabato set out to change all that. She credits all of the wonderful people out there who aided Michael with early intervention and outside the box thinking, quickly realizing that they would have to think less in black and white absolutes to conquer her son’s challenges.


    “That’s key,” she says. “Together we were determined to make my son the best he could possibly be.”


   That included mainstreaming him in the public school and integrating him in the school goings-on. “There were such good people around him,” Sabato praises.


    In particular she mentions Dr. Heather Payne, Michael’s long-time behaviorist. Describing how she not only aided Michael, but also all of the teachers, coaches and aides around him, Sabato enthuses, “Without her none of this would be possible. She’s a gift.”



   Then there’s Michael John Sabato himself, more than just a diagnosis, he and everyone around him–especially teacher Jarrod Cappello and head coach Chris Benequista– realized that he enjoyed athletics. “He ran track, and it was such a success,” his mother says. Then he became part of the football team–helping them out, “being as much a part of the team as he could possibly be,” Sabato relates.


    She can’t say enough about West Essex. “They are amazing,” she enthuses, describing how they made Sabato a part of things such as making him a part of the ritual pasta dinners and Senior Night.


    Seeking for her son to continue to grow and flourish after graduation, they came up with the idea of Mission Team 94. This nonprofit’s mission is to help young adults who are dealing with the challenges of Autism as they grow and evolve out of a school- based support system that normally gives assistance to people who are much younger.


    Opening up a new chapter for people who are enduring autism, Mission Team 94 seeks to help these young adults with day to day living skills such as payments, receipts, grocery shopping and the like. “All stuff we take for granted,” Sabato says.


    “With Mission 94 we strive to give them a voice, to give them a full and happy life. At Mission 94 we start a conversation about Autism and what we can do to help to open a valid program to get a full and happy life. It’s what they deserve.”


    There has been an outpouring of support for both this event and organization. “Everyone is so willing to help. It restores my faith in people,” Sabato prides. “It’s amazing.”


  For Nicole Sabato, Mission Team 94, the Color Run and its subsequent fundraisers, it’s all about giving back. What began for her and her family as an unfamiliar, insecure journey, became something else: “Everyone opened their arms to my son all the way. I am so grateful,” she shares. Now with Team 94, and their various fundraisers, she hopes to open her arms to others.


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