If Julia Smith had one message for kids, it would be this: Be kind to other kids.
"I think we each need to learn what's special about each other, and we need to understand what other people are going through," says the 11-year-old Elk Grove Village girl, who has turned a simple summer craft project into a way to help kids with special needs.
When Julia started making pins out of puzzle pieces two summers ago, she says her mom, Sally, thought the project was really cute. But as Julia did more research on the Internet about the puzzle piece, she discovered its significance as a symbol of autism awareness and decided she wanted to help.
Though she didn't know anyone with autism before then, she has since raised thousands of dollars for autism research and volunteers her time with children with special needs. Her work for autism caught the attention of the National Autism Foundation and the Kohl's Kids Who Care Scholarship Program, along with a congressman, her village board and community groups
Her pins, shaped like Christmas trees the first two years, sold quickly, raising $2,700. This year, she hopes to raise $3,000. She unveiled her new design at a recent village board meeting-a heart shaped from the puzzle pieces that she can now sell all year long.
She spent time this summer at the PIFFA (Pay It Forward for Autism) annual fun camp helping kids with autism and their siblings play sports, enjoy music, learn socialization skills and have fun together and with others. She also volunteers weekends at the Clearbrook respite program for kids with special needs and their siblings.