Westhampton Beach High School senior Abby Edwards raised more than $9,000 for autism awareness this year.
Abby, who lives in East Moriches, was in middle school when she was first inspired by her older brother, Riley, a nonverbal autistic, after attending a group meeting at her brother’s school, Anderson Center for Autism in Straatsburg, New York.
“I went to a meeting at my brother’s school — it’s like a family group, and they were talking about fundraising and how it’s important for families to get involved,” Abby said.
She first organized a pajama day program when she was in seventh grade, where students paid for permission to wear pajamas at her then middle school, East Moriches Middle School. Abby has organized a pajama day across multiple East End school districts for the past six years.
Pajama days were a common event at East Moriches Middle School, according to Abby, but pajamas hold a special significance for Abby and Riley as siblings.
“Me and my brother love wearing pajamas,” Abby said. “We always had matching pajamas for Christmas, so I said, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll do a pajama day,’ and it progressed from there.”
“I donate it all there,” she said of her brother’s school. “Over six years, I have raised around $48,000 for them. And it all goes to them for programs and services.”
Though her brother is nonverbal, Abby has explained to him the work that she does.
The Anderson Center also organizes an annual pajama day, “thanks to her” said Eliza Bozenski, chief development officer of the school. Families are encouraged to make donations in honor of Abby’s pajama day and then both students and staff at Anderson spend a day wearing pajamas. Residents of some residence houses wear matching pajamas, and the campus is full of pajamas that day.
Pajama day ran at Anderson, even during the pandemic lockdown, seen through social media posts of pajama wearers.
Abby said the staff always tells her brother, “This is your sister’s fundraiser.”
“She has touched the lives and hearts of pretty much every Anderson parent that were here back then when she was a seventh-grader and that are here now as she graduates high school,” Bozenski said.
“If you are around here on our campus and you mention Abby and pajama day or Abby’s pajama day, pretty much everyone knows who she is and knows what she’s done and knows how impactful it’s been,” Bozenski added.
In 2022, eight schools participated, raising over $9,000 for the Anderson Center.
At Westhampton Beach High School, Abby also organized a Light It Up Blue Day for Autism Awareness the past two years. High School Principal Christopher Herr was astounded by her accomplishments, with clubs like Youth to Youth working with Abby and passing out blue ribbons.
“Abby ran the Light It Up Blue Day to raise money for her brother’s school and for autism and the autism community,” said Herr. “Abby is just an outstanding young lady who is service oriented and we are just so proud of her.”
Abby is a member of the National Honor Society and a Girl Scout Ambassador. She is grateful for the opportunities and lessons presented by organizing pajama day. Abby said she spends the first six months of every year planning the annual April event, by sending emails to organize with various school districts, and connecting with the community.
“It taught me more about the importance of fundraising, and doing something outside of school,” she said.
Abby said the biggest change has come in the education about autism at all of the school districts. Along with pajama day, Abby goes to school districts to talk about autism and spread awareness.
Her brother is more than just a source of inspiration for fundraising — Abby will be attending Marist College in August, in pursuit of a degree in elementary and special education.
“I feel like I have a better understanding of people with disabilities, like autism,” said Abby. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.”
Abby recently decided to become a special education teacher after being inspired by the need for special education teachers, and dreams of being a teacher at her old elementary school in East Moriches.
“Something suddenly clicked,” Abby said as she described the epiphany she had while writing her college essay and remembering playing school with her brother when they were little.
With her graduation from high school this month, Abby will be retiring from her organization of the annual pajama day events, but will continue to educate others and spread awareness about autism.
“I might not be doing pajama day anymore, but once I get older I will do more for his school,” Abby said.