Eagles Autism Challenge: Passion for Helping Fuels Drexel Staff Member’s Participation

A family with a bike in biking clothes in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Jackie Abrams (center-left in the orange) with her parents and brother after a bike ride. Jackie and her father, Stew, already plan on riding in the Eagles Autism Challenge.

Before she even left high school, one experience locked Jackie Abrams into what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

As a 16-year-old, Jackie went from her native South Jersey to help out at a service organization’s summer camp in Baltimore. There, she was partnered one-on-one with a child on the autism spectrum. And it was then that she came to a heartbreaking conclusion. 

“I realized I was the only one of the other teens who wanted to work with him,” she said. “I think because maybe the student was different. Maybe the other teens were nervous, maybe unsure of themselves.”

But something became clear pretty quickly.

“I was kind of good at working with him,” she said, looking back. “I was just drawn to helping him.”

More than a decade later, Jackie has leaned into that desire to help. As the assistant director of Transition Pathways in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Jackie is an integral part of a program that seeks to ease the often rocky move from adolescence to adulthood for those on the spectrum. That means helping more young people like the boy she was paired with as a teenager.

“I’ve become really passionate about transition services,” she said. “That became kind of my niche.”

And it’s that passion that will also drive Jackie to bike and fundraise for the Eagles Autism Challenge.

“I always love a good bike ride and have dedicated my career to supporting young adults with autism and other disabilities,” Jackie said. “With these two things in mind, it was a no-brainer that I was going to participate.”

The inaugural Eagles Autism Challenge on May 19 is a 5k run/walk and series of bike rides that serve to raise money for autism research. Organizers are setting up a carnival-like atmosphere that will feature not just the races but appearances by Eagles players and even a finish-line on the 50-yard-line at Lincoln Financial Field.

Set to become an annual event, the Challenge benefits a coalition made up of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Jefferson Health. The hope is to create a steady funding source that fuels breakthrough discoveries.

Each walker, runner or rider who enters into the Challenge agrees to a fundraising minimum tied to their race. To ensure the minimums are set, every participant puts a credit card on file. The minimums can be seen here.

And when she rides in May, Jackie won't be going it alone: She’ll be joined by her father, Stew Abrams.

It’s safe to say that Stew is excited to get on the road.

“Oh my gosh, he gets a cycling magazine, he reads all these books about it,” Jackie laughed. “He’s the biggest bike enthusiast I know.”

Jackie expects that she and her father will be joined by other family and friends. And the party atmosphere the Eagles will create certainly helps.

“Once I heard we were going to get to meet the players and finish the ride on the 50-yard line, I was totally stoked,” Jackie said. “I think it’s awesome that the Eagles are involved. It brings a spotlight to a topic that is certainly in need of one.”

Asked some tips on how she plans to raise funds toward her ride, Jackie said that it’s really about “making it known” to people that you’re doing the Challenge.

“I shared on social media and I plan on talking about it,” she said. “I have several friends who have done races, so I’m saying that this is no different from what they’ve done.”

“And, I think, for Eagles fans, this is really cool,” she added.

But the pageantry and perks of the Challenge aside, everything comes back to Jackie’s enthusiasm that was awakened by the boy she met in Baltimore.

Unfortunately, the end to her Baltimore story isn’t a happy one. Jackie learned that after she left, the boy wasn’t going to be able to come to the camp any longer. There wasn’t any more support for him after she had to go home. So he was just dropped.

That’s Jackie’s real motivation to ride: She wants to raise money to help people like that boy she knew.

“Everyone should have the chance to lead a meaningful life, which may look different to each of us,” she said. “By expanding research and — consequently — awareness pertaining to a neurodiverse population, the more we can be accepting, inclusive, and ensure a meaningful life for all individuals with autism spectrum disorders.”

Those interested can sign up here. Remember to put “Team Drexel” before your team name.