October 15, 2013  by Steve Virgen | The Daily Pilot

Virgen: ‘Ante Up For Autism’ A Winner

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As cameras flashed on the red carpet outside the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort this weekend, Lisa Ackerman hugged several friends and guests who approached.

She hugged me. Everyone seemed to be part of the family at the seventh annual Ante up for Autism charity poker event Saturday. It’s Talk about Curing Autism’s biggest event of the year.

And you could tell that Ackerman, TACA’s founder and executive director, was excited to help raise money.

The night had a casino theme, but it was all about helping families who deal with autism, the neural development disorder.

“This is lucky No. 7,” Ackerman, a Newport Beach resident, said of the event, which raised roughly $259,000 to benefit TACA, the national nonprofit whose mission is to educate, empower and provide support to families affected by autism.

While she talked to me she also praised her son, Jeff, a 15-year-old with autism, who bumped his grade-point average from 2.7 to 3.75 in one year because of recent therapy.

“I’m very proud of you,” Ackerman said to her son as she gave him a high-five.

Ackerman wants advancement for everyone. Through TACA, she wants to give others hope. A fun casino night with celebrities at a luxurious hotel can never hurt.

“Tonight is about widening our circle, making our community bigger so we can support more families,” Ackerman said. “Each year the number of families goes up so much. We have over 350 people here to support the foundation. That’s a blessing in and of itself.”

Ackerman was among a few people I asked for important advice about being a parent of a child with autism. My 8-year-old daughter, Trinity, was born with Down syndrome and was later diagnosed with autism.

“The first thing is: It’s not game over, it’s game on,” Ackerman said as she looked me in the eye. “There’s so much hope. The most important thing for families to understand is that since 2005, there has been more research and treatment for autism [than] in all previous years combined. So even if they have been in the game for a decade, get back in the game because there are so many new things.”

The TACA poker event was intended to help provide those advancements to families who deal with autism.

The night began with a silent auction of items that included Los Angeles Laker tickets, a Ray Rice-signed football and a special “Seinfeld” ladle signed by the Soup Nazi. The latter item went for $925 to Shannon Kenitz of Madison, Wis.

Kenitz, who is with Oxy Healthy Corp., a leader in portable hyperbaric chambers, has a 14-year-old daughter, Grace, who was diagnosed with autism. Kenitz said she has seen the great advancements that have come in Grace’s lifetime and is excited to see more.

I also asked her for advice.

“No matter what, don’t give up on hope,” Kenitz said. “There are so many things and so many new therapies that are helping out our kids today. And so many extraordinary physicians who are thinking outside of the box.

“Now is not the time to give up hope. When I started with my daughter, there wasn’t really anything out there. Now there is a lot more.”

In addition to the silent auction and poker, the event featured other casino games and a live auction. A Chargers VIP package, a Sonoma wine trip and a weeklong Hawaii vacation were among the items that bidders paid a total of $42,800 for.

Prizes were provided by several sponsors.

Michelle Burt, the Orange County co-coordinator at TACA, which is based in Irvine, says she has gained help and support from the group in raising a 7-year-old son with autism. She said it feels great to give back now that she is a part of the organization.

“One of the hardest things of when you have the diagnosis of autism is how isolating it is,” Burt said. “And once you find TACA, you’re never alone. You’re able to spread the word and set people in the right direction, and get them services. Empower them and support them. It’s a great feeling to be able to do that.”

Several celebrities were in attendance to show their support, including actor Joseph Reitman and professional poker player Michelle Lau, who co-hosted the event. Shannon Elizabeth, of “American Pie” fame, as well as Johnathon Schaech, of “That Thing You Do!” notoriety, were among the actors present.

Leyla Milani, a Newport Coast resident who was a featured briefcase model on “Deal or No Deal,” also attended the event with her husband, Manny Khoshbin, a real estate tycoon. The couple didn’t attend last year because Milani had given birth to their daughter, Priscilla.

Milani said autism hasn’t hit her family directly, but she and her husband support the event because of their love for children. They said they have friends who are affected by autism. In the past, they have held charity events for autism at their home.

“We love children,” Milani said. “We feel the need to support them as much as we can.”

Support and charity were really the themes of casino night at the St. Regis. I was one of many grateful for a great fundraising night. I was also grateful for the advice given to me.

“Live in the moment and celebrate each journey that your child passes,” Burt said.

Thank you.

STEVE VIRGEN is sports editor for Times Community News South. He can be reached at (714) 966-4616 or steve.virgen@latimes.com.

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