Rudy and Becky Thoms started Autism Strong in 2016 to raise money for local families. Next month, they’ll host their biggest fundraiser yet at Symphony Park.
by Michelle Boudin
Rudy Thoms didn’t mean to start a nonprofit. It just sort of happened as a way to help his son, Landon, who is autistic, and others like him.
“My son was born very early. He was 32 weeks, premature, and spent five weeks in the NICU, so we knew he’d have challenges, but he was progressing normally until he was 18 months old. That’s when he shut down, and we got the diagnosis,” Thoms says. “We were in denial and shock.”
But not for long. Thoms and his wife, Becky, immediately set out to find the best care for their son.
“We tried to seek out therapy, and it was really challenging. Insurance didn’t want to pay for it, and it was really tough to find the things he needed. That’s what eventually made us start this foundation on our own.”
The couple first hosted a fitness fundraiser in 2013. About 100 people showed up, raising $8,000. They sent all the donations to a national autism organization. Each year they hosted the event and the money doubled, until 2016 when 350 people showed up to what was then BB&T Ballpark (now Truist Field) and they raised $30,000.
“When we drove home from that event, we said we need to do something different. We want to see this money in Charlotte, helping local families who can’t afford therapy.” In 2016, the Thoms officially launched Autism Strong, with money raised now going to help area families pay for needed therapies.
Natalie Clark has twin boys, Elliott and Cooper. Elliott has moderate autism; Cooper’s condition is so severe that Clark once worried he might have to move to a special home. The Clarks received a scholarship from Autism Strong to help pay for therapy for both boys.
“For us, the therapy is truly life-changing — completely and totally life-changing. We had safety issues with one of our sons. He was so overwhelming, and it was heartbreaking — and now we have hope.” Clark says thanks to therapy, Cooper, who was nonverbal, is now speaking, and his brother Elliott is now in a typical class at school.
“The Thoms are an inspiration … it’s what started us in therapy and made it possible for us. … Our quality of life and our kids’ quality of life is just so much better, and the amount of work they’ve put into [the nonprofit] along with having an autistic child is really just amazing.”
Stories like that are the reason Autism Strong, which is run by volunteers, is getting ready to host its biggest fundraiser yet, Thoms says. The nonprofit is teaming with Choate Construction to present BuildStrong, a festival celebrating autism, spreading awareness and of course, raising money.
“I love the fact that with therapy, you are able to give some sort of normalcy to a situation that isn’t normal to a family,” Thoms says. “I also love being able to raise awareness and compassion for kids that are different. We’re a small nonprofit, but every year we’re getting bigger and bigger, and with BuildStrong we’re really going to take off here.” SP
BuildStrong will take place October 9 from 3-7 p.m. at Symphony Park at SouthPark. On-site will be bounce houses for kids, a 100-team cornhole tournament, beer from Suffolk Punch and barbecue from Noble Smoke. Tickets start at $15; children 6 and under are free.