Shari Goldberg used to meet other parents at grocery stores.
It was the late 1990s, and doctors were preaching a diet free of gluten and casein for children with autism. Goldberg had seen some improvement in the health of her son, who was diagnosed when he was 18 months old, and was helping other parents by showing them what to buy.
“In those days no one knew what gluten was,” she said. “The bread is like $6, so you want to make sure it tastes good. We would talk about which tastes the best, which toasts the best. It had to be manageable.”
Those are the humble beginnings of the woman who is now president of Cleveland’s chapter of Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy organization. Goldberg founded the chapter in 2006 and under her leadership has seen its message spread throughout the region through collaborations with the CAVS and local celebrity chef Michael Symon, as well as fundraisers like the annual Walk, taking place this year in September.
After her son was diagnosed, the Pepper Pike resident dove into the world of autism research, finding out everything she could from doctors and other experts. Eventually other parents started to call her for help and she was more than happy to oblige.
It was during one of these times that she first got the idea to begin the Cleveland chapter. A friend of hers, who also had a child with autism, happened to also be a friend of Patricia Heaton, the actress who played the wife to comedian Ray Romano’s character on the hit show Everybody Loves Raymond.
Heaton, a Bay Village native, allowed use of her California home for an autism fundraiser that Goldberg had attended. During a discussion with Heaton, the actress told Goldberg, a homemaker at the time, she ought to bring Autism Speaks to Northeast Ohio.
“I told her, ‘You know what, if you support me I’ll do it.’ She told me she would support me,’” Goldberg said.
Founding the Cleveland chapter has put her at the forefront of raising funds and awareness for autism research in the region, which Goldberg said fills her with pride. She said it also helped her deal with her own issues as a mother caring for a child, now 13 years old, with autism.
“It really helped me get out of my sadness about this,” she said. “In a selfish way it really helped to get support from other people.”
Goldberg and her staff are currently preparing for World Autism Awareness Month beginning April 1 when landmark buildings in major cities across the world will glow with blue light, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for the international Light it Up Blue campaign.