My first semester with Alpha Xi Delta at Cornell brought one flurry of activities after the next; new friends, sisterhood traditions, chapter ceremonies, socials, and many, many fundraisers. Each year our chapter supports two philanthropies: our local philanthropy is The Racker’s Center in Ithaca, NY (a local inclusive preschool), and our national philanthropy is Autism Speaks. All Alpha Xi Delta chapters fundraise for Autism Speaks throughout the year, allowing sisters across different campuses to work together in support of the organization. Connecting with sisters across the United States brings a greater sense of purpose to our philanthropic efforts; the events we plan for our chapter in Ithaca are also events chapters host at different campuses. Both Autism Speaks and The Racker’s Center support individuals with disabilities, generally focusing on younger children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and aim to cultivate greater understanding and acceptance of individuals with disabilities.
Our chapter efforts to support Autism Speaks usually ramps up in November, with our annual Letters of Love campaign. Letters of Love is an online philanthropic effort for all Alpha Xi Delta Chapters in memory of Autism Speaks Co-Founder Suzanne Wright. Each sister sends emails to their friends and family asking for their help to raise money and foster understanding environments in their community. Last November, the Cornell chapter ranked fifteenth nationally, raising $3,137 dollars amongst all members.
Each April, we celebrate World Autism Month through the Light it up Blue campaign. Our chapter house on campus is lit blue for the month and this is the time we host our yearly AmaXIng Challenge. In past years we have fundraised through Chill by the Grill, playing lawn games while selling food to friends and passerbys. This past April our chapter planned our first AmaXIng Gala at the Johnson Museum of Art. Our Philanthropy Vice President put together a silent auction, of which all proceeds would have been donated to Autism Speaks.
So many of our sisters have personal experiences with Autism, whether from a close friend or family member, before joining Alpha Xi Delta. Further, many of the women at Cornell who go through recruitment each Spring share with us their personal experiences working with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Our sisters’ involvement in supporting individuals with Autism goes beyond our chapter. Many of our sisters, especially our newest member class, work one-on-one with individuals in the Ithaca community who have Autism through organizations such as Cornell Best Buddies. Providing our support as a sisterhood to individuals with special needs is not simply the philanthropy we donate to, but it is a passion that draws new sisters to choose our chapter amongst others each year and one that our sisters will continue to be passionate about beyond graduation.
Unlike many of my sisters, my personal experience learning about Autism Spectrum Disorder began when I first joined my chapter. Through one of my sisters, Julia, I learned about how The Racker’s Center supports children in our community with various sensory processing disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorder. She was a junior at the time, working long hours each day in the studios of the Human Ecology building on campus for her collection in the annual Cornell Fashion Collective in March 2019. At the time I was modeling and dancing for a senior designing sustainable dancewear, which gave me the opportunity to learn her story and watch Julia’s designs and vision come to life through each fitting and dress rehearsal.
Julia’s focus, which she has now launched into her career (Sense-ational You launching soon!), was creating fashionably functional clothes for children with Autism. Her niche as a fashion designer focuses on creating clothing that is both functional and fashionable for children with special needs, empowering each child to celebrate their personality with their own style. She partnered with the Ithaca chapter of The Racker’s Center to enlist the help of many (phenomenally adorable) children the center regularly worked with to model her designs. I remember the night of the show so many of our sisters came to watch Julia’s collection premier. In the midst of high-fashion designs and models wearing pin-thin stilettos, her segment brought new cheers of hope, elation, and wonder across the crowd.
Watching Julia’s personal connection with our chapter’s philanthropy was the perfect introduction to just how important our philanthropic efforts are to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Much of the philanthropy activities on Cornell’s campus take form as fundraisers, and while fundraising is never a bad idea, being a sister of Alpha Xi Delta allowed me to experience first-hand the importance of the organizations we support as a chapter. I am so grateful for my experience in Alpha Xi Delta and being able to help make a positive contribution to the lives of children with Autism. Without the genuine passion my chapter radiates for supporting those in our community and across the United States, our philanthropy would be just another fundraising event.
Xx, Jenna Downey
Cornell University, Alpha Xi Delta