By Amy Wenk
Buckhead resident Stephanie Huddleston is helping families and individuals that are affected by autism, a brain disorder that disrupts a person’s ability to communicate, form relationships with others and respond appropriately in social situations.
As executive director of the Childhood Autism Foundation (CADEF), she coordinates fundraising events to support sponsor programs, such as the Emory Autism Center at Emory University and the Model Classroom in Cobb County, to assist children and adults diagnosed with autism.
“Autism is affecting one in 150 children,” Huddleston said. “An individual is diagnosed every 20 minutes. There is still hope for them. We just need the funds in order for the programs to be beneficial to help the families and the individuals.”
Since February 2006, when she took on the role of executive director, Huddleston has helped CADEF increase charitable donations. Her latest fundraiser, the 23rd annual Candlelight Ball held March 8 was a record-breaking event, raising approximately $250,000 for the organization.
“I definitely think it was a tremendous [event] for us,” said Huddleston, who served as chair for the ball.
About 400 people attended the black tie event at the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead. WSB-TV Anchor Jovita Moore served as the mistress of the Candlelight Ball, and Auctioneer Uladia Taylor of Stone Mountain ran the live auction portion of the evening.
One of the highlights of the evening was when 8-year-old David Militello, a third-grader at Chapel Hill Elementary School in Douglasville, performed Diana Ross’s “If we hold on together.” Although diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, David’s rendition brought tears to the eyes of some audience members.
CADEF President Alan Wolfe credited the success of this year’s Candlelight Ball to Huddleston’s leadership.
“She is the one who truly runs all the fundraising events,” said Wolfe. “Her maturity, her creativity, her ability to help lead the organization and drive the organization, exceeds her years tenfold. I really can’t say enough great things about her. As board [member] of CADEF, I’ll tell you that since she’s been here, we have been able to break records in fundraising.”
Wolfe became acquainted with Huddleston while she was teaching at the Walden Early Childhood Center, one of the programs CADEF sponsors. Huddleston taught Wolfe’s now 7-year-old son, Joshua, who is afflicted with autism.
“[My wife and I] look at Stephanie as one of people that was integral to my son’s progress,” said Wolfe. “After I joined the board, Stephanie was looking for a different challenge, and we happened to have an opening for the executive director position with CADEF, so I was able to recommend her to the executive committee.”
Huddleston, who graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in speech pathology, was eager to accept the position.
“Instead of working with the individuals first hand, I wanted to help with starting more and more programs,” she said. “I wanted to make sure the programs had enough funding for them to execute to the best of their ability.”
Keeping this goal in mind, Huddleston has big plans for CADEF’s future, including adding a third fundraising event. The organization currently holds two events, the Candlelight Ball and the Magnolia Classic Golf Tournament, which is held each year on Columbus Day.
“We are hoping to continue to find ways to encourage younger members of society to get involved,” Huddleston said. “I think it would be nice to have a third event, which would be smaller to target a younger crowd.”
Since 1985, CADEF, formerly known as the Childhood Autism Diagnostic and Educational Foundation, Inc., has raised and distributed more than $4.5 million in support of autism programs.
In this time, CADEF supported the establishment of the Emory Autism Center, designed for the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders. In 2002, CADEF raised more than $3.4 million to construct a new building on the Emory University Campus to expand the center. These funds have been raised through special events, capital campaigns and charitable support from organizations such as The Woodruff Foundations.
“The mission of CADEF is to help people and families in Georgia who are touched by autism,” Wolfe said. “We are not looking to find a cure for autism. We leave that to the bigger organization like Autism Speaks, who can raise millions and millions of dollars. What we are trying to do is fund programs and support programs that are going to help people who are affected by autism have better lives.”