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AUBURN — Sara Wright carried her reason for being out at the Walk for Autism Awareness in Auburn in her arms Saturday.

Wright held her daughter Savannah Wright, 4, who has autism, and walked with hundreds at Herman Elementary School to Hoopes Park and back to the school for the event. Before the event, Savannah played with balloons with a gigawatt smile planted firmly on her face at the school's gymnasium. Wright said she doesn't think people really understand autism, adding "it can be in any form."

Walkers snaked through the park largely in separate packs, with police nearby to monitor traffic. Food and activities, including an appearance by Jeff the Magic Man, were available after the event.

The sixth annual fundraising event was set up by the nonprofit E. John Gavras Center, which provides services to children with or without disabilities, in Auburn. Rebecca Reese, the center's communications coordinator, said the event is meant to raise autism awareness and to raise money for the center. Reese and Bob Padula, president of the center's board of directors, said the center's funding through government programs such as Medicaid is cut every year, so the center opted years ago to hold events such as the walk. Padula, grinning ear-to-ear, said he believes seeing children receive therapy and other services at the center makes the event worthwhile for him. The event raised $12,000 last year, Reese said.

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She praised the "incredibly supportive" community for supplying time and dollars for the event, with around 300 to 400 people marching each year. Reese said the event allows her to see faces she doesn't often see "outside of my four office walls" at her desk job.

"It's nice to see the smiling faces of the community that supports us," Reese said.

Elizabeth Smith said she was at the walk to support her son, Alijah Takarz, who has autism. Though Alijah was with his grandmother that morning, Smith said, she believes it is important to raise autism awareness. Smith wants people to look beyond Alijah's disability and see the "beautiful person" who is often the first to run to someone who is crying.

"Don't judge people off of what you see before you get to know them," Smith said.

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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