Photos by Dave Warner

Autism: Awareness, Understanding, and Acceptance.

by Deborah A. Kaufman

The 5th Annual Tom Bergen Memorial Autism Awareness Bowling Tournament, at RD’s Gorge View Lanes in Little Falls, wrapped up its 2-day event this weekend with record attendance and over 180 bowlers playing on six bowling squads. The bowling tournament has been put on by family members over the past four years in memory of Tom Bergen who passed away in 2016. This year was the first year they had a sponsor. Mike Evans of Little Falls came up to the family and said he knew Tom and wanted to help.

According to Tammy Helmer-Bergen, Tom’s mother, “People were there right from the beginning with support, but it has definitely gotten bigger with regard to the amount of money given to the ARC Herkimer Autism Program in his name. The first three years were $3,000 each year, the fourth year was $4,000, and we’re hoping for even more this year.” Proceeds also benefit the Tom Bergen Memorial Scholarship at Little Falls High School for an individual with a disability or special needs, like Tom.

When asked why a bowling tournament memorial, Mrs. Bergen explained, “This was actually something that Tom and I talked about before he passed…about having an Autism Awareness bowling tournament. It was a couple of days after he passed that my son, Billy, and I said to each other…‘a bowling tournament in his memory.’ Four months later we had the first one.”

Tom’s father, Bill Bergen, recalled Tom’s love of bowling. “He and his brother, Billy, started in youth bowling when they were little, and went right up to the bowling team. Then, when he graduated, he started a team on Sunday nights here at RD’s Gorge View Lanes. He really loved bowling. He was good at bowling. He didn’t excel at many sports, but he was really good at bowling.”

He had autism, but it never stopped him from doing whatever he wanted to do. Tom graduated from Little Falls with a Regents diploma and went on to MVCC for his degree in Graphic Arts Technology and a certificate in Small Business Management.

Mrs. Bergen commented about Tom’s fearless attitude when tackling something new, “He’d come home and say, ‘Mom, I wanna do this and I’d say, well then, let’s make it happen.’ He had a wonderful group around him that helped him succeed. Not just his family but teachers and people that knew him. It’s amazing after he passed how many people would say I knew Tom and tell me stories.”

“If Tom were to give advice to someone with autism, I think he would say to do whatever your heart desires. Autism never really stopped him from doing whatever he wanted.” As an example, she told a story of how he would get to Mohawk Valley Community College. He would go to work with her, get on a Birnie bus and then transfer onto a Central bus. “He had never been on a bus in his life. The first few times she followed him to make sure he got there okay. He had a short life, but a good life.

I think that having some of these events like this, some people might stereotype an individual with autism. There is such a range of functionality. Don’t think that they can’t do something just because they have autism.” Pointing to a Boy Scout uniform hanging on the wall, Mrs. Berger proudly remarked, “Tom was an Eagle Scout. He was an assistant scoutmaster right up till he passed.”

Mr. Berger concluded, “Tom had a big heart, he got along with everybody. People you wouldn’t think he would have anything in common with would be his friends. He was always so polite to people. If he were here today, he would say ’thank you, thank you, thank you.’ That’s who he was.”

Bowlers who bowled all six squads were Chad Walrath, Nick Suits, Joe Pendolf, Billy Miles, Tim Pope, and Kevin Walker. To learn about the winners of the 31 gift baskets or the bear, contact Tammy Helmer-Bergen at (315) 823-1865.