12/07/2006 07:24 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Another Activist is Born

Growing up as a child, my parents had us tune in to the evening news every night. Walter Cronkite reached into our living room where we all sat to receive the news of the day and then he signed off promptly at 6:00pm. Immediately following was a home-cooked dinner with the five of us sitting around the table discussing current events. My parents patiently explained everything we had just seen. My love for politics, especially domestic policy, was born right there at that dinner table. We formulated opinions and they challenged us to think about them further.

At night before bed, my mother would sit behind me on the couch with me at her feet while she rolled my hair with sponge rollers. She found a show that held my attention and kept me from complaining and wiggling. I was lucky enough to stay up late once a week and watch 20/20.

One night in 1978, much to my horror, Geraldo Rivera aired a piece that showed greyhound races using live rabbits. Frantz Dantzler, an animal rights activist, was pursuing federal legislation that would stop this cruel process. Although Dantzler was not successful in procuring legislation, shortly after the airing of the 20/20 piece, the National Greyhound Association outlawed the use of live rabbits during coursing events.

What Geraldo and Frantz didn't realize that they did that night was birth another activist.

I couldn't believe what I had seen! How could anyone allow those little bunnies to suffer? With frantic eyes full of tears, I asked my mother what we could do. As she tucked me in, she explained, in very basic terms how the world of politics worked, how important it was for us as American Citizens to speak our minds and that we must always stand up for what we believe. I was immediately compelled into action. With a hair full of sponge rollers pulling every single strand of blonde hair on my head so much that it hurt, I penned a letter to President Jimmy Carter before I went to sleep. No more bunnies would die unnecessarily. Not on my watch.

We had just moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana from Warner Robbins, Georgia. My little third grade mind was positive that if President Carter got a letter from a former Georgia resident he would pay attention to this very important issue. I licked the stamp and stuck the letter in the mail.

It wasn't world peace I needed to solve. I was no longer interested in Camp David talks between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Or that Somalia was attacking Ethiopia. To a third grader, life can be very simple and the thought that a live bunny can be ripped to shreds by a dog just for entertainment can be an incredibly pressing issue.

Several weeks later, much to my surprise, Cecil Andrus, Secretary of the Interior, sent me a very polite response to my letter. On onionskin paper, in delicately typed words, he explained that the Administration was on the case. Many states had already banned the practice. I could rest my weary, little head knowing that the National Greyhound Association was about to make live bunny rabbit killing for fun, history.

It worked. In my mind, I had saved the lives of millions of bunny rabbits everywhere. Empowered since that day, I have written every single President of the United States about one issue or another.

All that training - the political activism, working on political campaigns, studying political science in college, event planning - all of it, prepared me for my purpose in life which I found at the age of 29 when my son Liam was diagnosed with autism.

Liam was diagnosed when his sister, Mairin was only six weeks old in April of 1998. Nine months later with Jeana Smith and Nancy Cale, I birthed the organization Unlocking Autism. Our nonprofit is dedicated not only to teaching people about autism but designed to train average citizens on the importance of grass roots politics. My heart told me that it was important to teach parents who felt they had lost everything with their child's diagnosis that they actually possessed the power to change things in their own community and in this nation. When you are empowered, you have hope. When you have hope, you fight to make things better in the world. When you make the world a better place, your life finds purpose and meaning again.

Mairin cut her teeth on grass roots activity, literally. Before the age of two, she was licking envelope after envelope on our living room floor. She would hear me pace around the house ranting and raving on the phone to anyone and everyone that would listen from Members of Congress and their staff to the media to other parents throughout the country. She absorbed it all like a sponge. More than I actually realized. For her, political activity is as commonplace as going to the park or the movies.

She can hold her own in a political debate with her peers and often starts them on the playground. In 2004, she came home after an apparently frustrating day in the first grade and was completely out of sorts that no one could defend their positions on their choice vote for President. In the mock elections in her class, she was the only one who voted for John Kerry. She defended her choice for Kerry because she didn't like President Bush's position on the removal of mercury in vaccines. All the other kids voted for George Bush because that was their parent's choice. I hadn't even realized that she knew who was running for President, much less their position on any issue.

Earlier this fall, my mother was working on a scrapbook for me and we started talking about that letter that I wrote to President Carter all those years ago. Mairin was playing in the den but as usual straining her big ears to overhear the conversation and trying her best to make it look like she was doing something else. A third grader now herself, she was intrigued that someone her age could write the President about anything.

As soon as I got off the phone, she asked me if she should write a letter to President Bush. I asked her what she would write about. Mairin didn't bat an eye in answering my question. She wanted to write President Bush to ask him to do more to research and find answers for her brother.

Our house this year has been dotted with conversation after conversation with other autism organizations and parents around the country regarding the Combating Autism Act, which if passed would designate nearly one billion dollars in research for autism, alone. It is a historic piece of legislation that specifically designates funding at the National Institutes of Health for one disease. Only AIDS has ever received such a special allocation.

She followed me around the rest of the night from chore to chore talking about how she could accomplish this newfound task. Would I help her write the letter? No, I told her it was her issue and she needed to write the letter. Stomp, whine, plead. Would she get in trouble if she wrote the President? Frowny face, hands on hips. If he didn't like the letter would he come and get her? No, I said, he probably already knows where we live because Mommy has written him several times already and he hasn't come to get her yet. She was clearly nervous but determined to sort this all out in her head.

I finally sat her down, gave her my full attention and passed on the same words of wisdom to her that my mother shared with me. You must always speak your mind and the best thing about living in America is that you can do that, to anyone, up to and including the President of the United States. With that, I sent her upstairs to brush her teeth and get ready for bed while I finished up downstairs.

As I rounded the top of the stairs with a laundry basket to make sure we were keeping the cavity bugs at bay, I saw her sitting at her desk with a piece of paper and a big brown Crayola marker in her hand. She had written her letter to George Bush. I waited for her to sign her name and then picked it up.

In her little half printed, half cursive handwriting, in her very own words, it said:

"Dear George Bush,

I have a brother named Liam. He is ten years old and we live in Baton Rouge. Also my brother has autism. What makes me sad is that sometimes I can't understand my brother. It is sad that my brother can't eat centat (this is certain, misspelled) kinds of food. I'm sad that my brother is autistic and I love him.

Mairin Reynolds

PS. I am eight years old, and can you please help fix kids with autism like Liam? Thank you.

She had also drawn a picture of her with her brother Liam, standing in a sunny field of flowers holding hands wearing cowboy hats. She also drew a picture of a horse, above which was inscribed the name - Alexander the Great. I don't know what the heck that was for but we decided to send it off along with the letter anyway. Her thought was that maybe he would put it on the fridge at the White House. She scampered back down to the computer to Google President Bush's address.

I sat down on her bed, put my head in my hands and cried. She has been through so much in eight little years but she is Miss Fiesty Pants and is absolutely going to set the world on fire one day.

On Thursday, December 7th, the Combating Autism Act ( passed the United States House and Senate and will head to President Bush's desk to await his signature to become law. If he does not veto the bill, this one piece of legislation will provide funding that may not only help find answers for my child, but potentially children and adults all over the world today living with autism. It may not leave every stone unturned but if it is a tremendous start for a growing epidemic. If it finds one answer that helps one child with autism and their family live a peaceful, fulfilled life then I am all for it.

Mairin still hasn't heard from President Bush. But we keep the faith and check the mailbox every day when we get home from school. When she does get her letter back from him, I will do everything that I can to help her believe that her letter was the one thing that tipped the scales and solved the problem, the same way Cecil Andrus's letter did for me nearly thirty years ago.

Lookout world. Another activist is born.