Lorri Unumb is more than happy to cheer from the stands at NASCAR races, but not when it comes to serving those with autism.
Since her oldest child, Ryan, was diagnosed shortly before his second birthday nine years ago, the Lexington woman has been an advocate for other families, even founding in the years since the Autism Academy of South Carolina, which helps children develop needed skills.
Unumb is one of four national finalists for the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award, presented each year by the NASCAR Foundation to recognize fans who have made an impact with children through charities in their communities.
Unumb’s selection as a finalist has earned the Autism Academy of South Carolina $25,000, and the overall winner will receive $100,000 for their charity.
Residents can watch a video highlighting Unumb’s community service and vote for her at NASCAR.com/Award. The winner will be announced during NASCAR’s Sprint Cup year end banquet Dec. 2 in Las Vegas.
Unumb spoke with The State about the passion behind her efforts and what a win would mean for her charity.
How widespread is autism’s reach?
Unumb: “On March 29, 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1-in-88 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. This astounding statistic means that more than 1 percent of children will be impaired in their ability to communicate and interact with other individuals as typical children do.”
How are children affected by this disorder?
Unumb: “Because autism is a spectrum disorder, different children are affected in different ways. While some children are only mildly impaired and may just seem ‘quirky,’ other children are wholly unable to communicate their needs, wants and thoughts. Some children with autism are able to speak and have highly sophisticated vocabularies, but they are unable to develop relationships with peers or even family members. Children who live with autism face unique challenges that impact every facet of their lives.”
What would the $100,000 first prize mean to your agency?
Unumb: “Should the Autism Academy be lucky enough to receive the $100,000 donation, we would use it to create a scholarship fund so that children who would otherwise not be able to attend the Autism Academy would be given the opportunity. At present, there are more than 20 children on the waiting list. Sadly, we have trained would-be staff ready and eager to begin work, and we are just waiting on these children to piece together funding that permits them to attend.”
What are some of your other favorite charitable causes?
Unumb: “In addition to founding the Autism Academy of South Carolina, I also work for a nonprofit autism organization, Autism Speaks. Based in New York and founded in 2005, Autism Speaks is the world’s largest autism science and advocacy nonprofit organization. Outside the autism world, I’m a big supporter of local community theater. I performed in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Town Theatre earlier this year.”
How long have you been a NASCAR fan?
Unumb: “For over 25 years, I have been an enthusiastic NASCAR fan. My interest in the sport grew during my college years at the University of South Carolina when I entered the Miss Southern 500 Pageant. I won the pageant and was fortunate enough to spend the 1989-1990 year as a special guest at the Darlington-based races. From riding in the pace car with (the late) Sen. Strom Thurmond, to watching the tire change up-close-and-personal in pit row, to spraying champagne in the winner’s circle with handsome Harry Gant, I experienced the excitement of NASCAR in a way few fans can.”
So how can people support your efforts?
Unumb: “Come see us at the Autism Academy of South Carolina. And vote, vote, vote on NASCAR.com/Award.”
Reach Rantin at (803) 771-8306.