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A Handoff to Autism

Featured Photo from A Handoff to Autism

Thanks to football legend and Florida resident Doug Flutie, founder of The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, Inc. Lake Mary will serve as the local hub building awareness and helping families affected by autism.

Football legend and Florida resident Doug Flutie is giving Lake Mary an early gift this holiday season, one wrapped in compassion, dedication, and love. The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, Inc. is expanding into Central Florida in conjunction with the organization’s 20th anniversary, and Lake Mary will be its local home.

The Flutie Foundation, based in Framingham, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, was founded by Doug and Laurie Flutie soon after their son, Dougie, was diagnosed with autism at age three. For the first two-plus years of his life, Dougie talked and acted like any little boy. Then, he began regressing. Today, Dougie, 26, is nonverbal, requiring daily care.

“We would like to make a difference in Central Florida, from Orlando to Melbourne,” says Doug, who lived in Melbourne in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and moved back five years ago. “What we need are more facilities for families and individuals in Florida. There are not a lot of them. To find Dougie schooling and help here is  very difficult.”

Lake Mary resident Paul Karrlsson-Willis serves as the Foundation’s Central Florida volunteer advisory board chair and is charged with building a team of motivated, caring professionals to lead the new venture. Doug’s daughter, 30-year-old Alexa Flutie-Sumner, who coaches cheerleading and dance at the Florida Institute of Technology, may join the operation as it gets up and running. From there, the real work begins.

“We are seeking to team up with the right organizations, especially those with a hands-on, grassroots presence,” says Paul.

Grant proposals from area agencies and organizations dealing with autism are already being reviewed, and the Flutie Foundation will distribute $30,000 in December to selected recipients in the Central Florida area.

Fundraisers for the Foundation’s new chapter are taking shape, as well. On March 11, 2019, a golf tournament is slated for the Magnolia Golf Course at Walt Disney World.

Nick Savarese, executive director of the Flutie Foundation, explains that since the expansion into Central Florida is still in its infancy, a physical brick and mortar presence in Lake Mary is still to be determined.

“Right now, we want people on the streets, a volunteer-led presence,” Nick says. “When Doug and Laurie moved to Florida, they were determined to give back and support autism organizations. Central Florida was chosen as the location of focus.”

A Happy Accident

A Heisman Trophy winner with Boston College, a three-time Grey Cup Champion in the Canadian Football League, and a National Football League Pro-Bowler, Doug signed with the Buffalo Bills in 1998 at age 35, receiving a $25,000 signing bonus. At the time, friend and fellow quarterback Jim Kelly had established a foundation for his son Hunter, who was suffering from Krabbe Disease.

“That kind of sparked the idea for my Foundation,” says Doug. “I realized I should be doing something. The signing bonus launched the Foundation.”

The initial plan was to reach out to those with autism needing assistance in both the Boston and Buffalo areas. Then, as unexpectedly as his famous Hail Flutie touchdown pass to beat the University of Miami on Thanksgiving weekend in 1984, an endorsement with a cereal company took on a life of its own.

“The Flutie Flakes endorsement blew up,” Doug says. “I donated the proceeds to the Foundation, and we raised $1.5 million. It was a happy accident.”

Since its inception, the Flutie Foundation has raised more than $12 million, and 80 cents of every dollar goes toward helping families and individuals affected by autism. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization is highly rated by watchdog Charity Navigator for its transparency and accountability.

The Flutie Foundation has become Doug’s life work. When he is not broadcasting football games or playing in the local surf, Doug spends much of his time building awareness of autism and seeking out those who can help.

“I played football for over 20 years,” says Doug. “I thought that was my calling. But when you visit the places we have helped, you see that we are really making a difference for these families.”

Paul adds that a future endeavor for the Central Florida branch includes initiating a venture capital group. The group will invest in companies that are managed by and employ men and women with autism.

Beyond building awareness and helping families affected by autism live life to the fullest, Doug does have an ultimate goal.

“I want to build a facility someday in Dougie’s honor,” Doug smiles.

With the support of the people in Central Florida, that day may not be far off.

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