The 5K and fun run was started by the family of an autistic student at the school.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Desmond Zirkelbach, an autistic student at Charles F. Tigard Elementary School, plays with Legos at home. Desmond is the namesake of 'I Run for Desmond,' a 5K and fun run to raise money for special education at his school.Now in its fourth year, a 5K run and walk that supports special education at Charles F. Tigard Elementary School is being held next month at a new location.

"I Run for Desmond," which was started by Amy and Brian Zirkelbach in the name of their son Desmond, will be held on the morning of April 8 at Cook Park, 17005 S.W. 92nd Ave.

Desmond is now in the fourth grade at CFT Elementary. He was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 6.

While Desmond is very intelligent and has an exceptional memory, his parents said, he struggles with many aspects of socialization and has difficulty dealing with lots of sensory input. He receives support from his school's special education department, and the Zirkelbachs said they are motivated to give back and support those programs at his school.

"After he was diagnosed, the help was there, but the problem with the school system is that they didn't have the funds to have things to help him," Amy Zirkelbach said. "Kids with autism can't sit. They have to physically move around to learn."

"They're fidgety," Brian Zirkelbach added.

Amy Zirkelbach continued, "So the things that he needs for school, they didn't have them. So when we started doing I Run for Desmond and the funds were coming in, they were able to purchase special sensory swings, hand-sensory items for them to hold, these heavy blankets that they put on their lap, vests."

This year's proceeds from I Run for Desmond will go toward establishing a science laboratory for special needs students at CFT, she said.

"I actually spoke to Diane Crosley, who's the head specialist over at CFT. I said, 'Well, what are we working for this year? What do you guys need?'" Amy Zirkelbach said. "And she says that we're going to get a new science lab for the special education department. … The kids have their own science centers in their classrooms, but this is just for the special ed department."

The Zirkelbachs have set a fundraising goal of $3,000, but Amy said they have overshot their goal in the past and are hoping to raise more than that.

Gina Defeyter, a special education teacher at the school, said staff would like to be able to purchase items like stereoscopes or microscopes, petri dishes, eyedroppers, and other materials to help create a science-oriented learning environment in the special education classroom.

"That's our hope, is to be able to have funds from the event that would help us to provide just a wide range of materials that could help support students at different levels, because science is so engaging and it's such a great way for them to explore and create," Defeyter said. "I think it's one of the more interesting subjects that we can teach and have them involved in."

I Run for Desmond will have a "fun run" for children up to age 12 at 8:45 a.m. Participants in the 5K can choose to run or walk; walkers start at 9 a.m. and runners will start at 9:15 a.m.

"It's not just a run," Amy Zirkelbach said. "(It's) a celebration. It's a gathering of just bringing the community together."

April is Autism Awareness Month, which the Zirkelbachs have been working to promote at Desmond's school since his diagnosis.

"There's new kids that come in every year that have never been at CFT before, and they ask, 'What is autism?' And they actually educate the kids there all month on what it is and how we can help, because it's not just awareness of it, it's acceptance," Amy Zirkelbach said.

Desmond has many classmates who are supportive and understanding of his autism, she remarked. The school has also helped him.

"The special education department — they're so awesome," Amy Zirkelbach said. "I mean, they'll bend over backward for this kid."

Defeyter said she feels that bringing the school community together around the cause of autism awareness, understanding and acceptance is even more valuable than the monetary gain for her department, which she said has enabled staff to purchase sensory materials and learning supplements for students with disabilities over the past few years.

"I think that's more important than the fund part," she said. "We're helping kids to understand more, and I think that's beyond the benefits of the I Run for Desmond event that takes place."

Runners and walkers can register for I Run for Desmond on the event website. Registration is $25 for adults and $20 for children to participate in the 5K, or $5 for children participating in the fun run.

The event has several local and Portland-area sponsors. Brian Zirkelbach, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, said many of his comrades-in-arms have volunteered to help out, as has the Zirkelbachs' church, Grace Point Community Church.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story appeared on the web with the incorrect publication date.

By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times
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