Editor’s note: “Bringing It Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
It was the summer of 2010 when Julie Manning joined a friend at a private Aspen fundraiser for Extreme Sports Camp.
Manning, who grew up in Aspen, was introduced to the camp director and told him about her autistic daughter, Olivia, who was 8 at the time. The director then insisted that Manning go back to her home in Seattle and bring her daughter to the camp.
“I told the director Olivia was too severe to participate,” Manning said. “Olivia has seizures, she’s nonverbal, and she isn’t potty-trained. All he said was, ‘So? Go get her.’”
Manning did bring her daughter to the camp and was shocked at how Olivia responded to the outdoor activities. Autistic children often have a physical motion they revert to called “stimming,” which is short for self-stimulation, seemingly related to their sensory output.
“When Olivia came back from the camp, there was less stimming, more eye contact and she slept great,” Manning said. “She was so full of life. I couldn’t believe my daughter could zipline, go rafting, go wakeboarding. ... It was amazing. These were goals we worked towards every day, and it happened so quickly at the camp.”
Like many parents, Manning saw her daughter respond to the newfound freedom and opportunity to participate in things that Manning never expected.
“To come back home to the place I grew up and see Olivia doing many of the same activities I did growing up was unbelievable,” Manning said. “I just never thought it could happen. I trust the people at the camp 100 percent. They really know how to relate to the kids. They’re very inclusive, accepting and totally relaxed. I think autistic kids realize they can be themselves at the camp, and that’s huge.”
Drawn to each other
Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and it often is accompanied by behavioral challenges. Autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in 1 in 88 children, affecting four times as many boys as girls.
Extreme Sports Camp holds an even stronger bond with Manning that relates to her relationship with Billy Rieger, the founder of Kenichi restaurant in Aspen and the love of Manning’s life. Rieger took his own life in September 2011, but before that tragedy he had been a generous supporter of the camp after he developed a special bond with Olivia.
Manning has three children from a different marriage and said Rieger loved them all, but for some reason, Olivia and Rieger seemed drawn to each other.
“With Olivia, things are very black and white,” Manning said. “There’s no hidden agendas with her. When Olivia gives you a hug, it’s the real deal. Those two had a special relationship that was sincere and loving. Billy became very protective of Olivia and a huge supporter of the Extreme Sports Camp after watching Olivia respond to the activities.”
Manning watched as Rieger not only bonded with Olivia but also was drawn more and more toward helping autistic kids. He wanted to do whatever he could and started holding fundraisers at Kenichi to support the camp and raise autism awareness locally.
Rieger also made sure the money he raised stayed in the valley to help with scholarships, therapies and any other way the funds could be applied close to home.
“Billy saw so many positives with the camp that he wanted to do whatever he could to help,” Manning said.
Brother’s Keeper joins the cause
Rieger was a good friend of musician John Popper, the lead singer and harmonica player from the band Blues Traveler. Popper also plays in the band Brother’s Keeper and will be performing with it at the Light It Up Blue Gala on Sunday.
Brother’s Keeper played in Aspen in November, but Manning asked Popper if he would consider being part of the gala. Popper went one step beyond and also recruited Brother’s Keeper for the event.
“I’ve been a close friend to Bil Rieger since 2003, and nary a kinder soul walked upon this earth,” Popper said. “He was always committed quite deeply to doing what he could to ease, if not end, the suffering of others. Perhaps thanks to Julie and certainly his connection to Olivia, the treatment of autism had been chief among his causes. Julie has really kept that ball rolling; I’m so thrilled to be able to participate in Light It Up Blue.”
Manning is now the owner of Kenichi and holds a fundraiser every summer for the camp. She’s also on the Light It Up Blue committee and helps with fundraising in other ways. She and a friend, Basalt resident Renee MacKie, go door-to-door in Aspen to raise money for the camp.
“We make a great team,” Manning said. “People in Aspen are very giving. It’s obvious people want to support this cause.”