Annual charity ball makes these students a nonprofit force. This year’s cause: Autism.

Students at Enloe High School aren’t just raising money to support the Autism Society of North Carolina. They’ve become part of the team for a new program that’s helping young adults with autism learn to become more independent.

The Enloe Charity Ball, an annual event organized by the Raleigh magnet school’s student council, is trying to raise $200,000 by Dec. 8 to support the Autism Society’s new IGNITE Center in Raleigh. Enloe students have been volunteering at the center since it opened in September, founding a program designed to help young people on the autism spectrum develop needed life skills.

Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to a group of developmental disabilities that, according to the Autism Society, are typically associated with challenges of varying severity in the areas of social interaction, communication, and repetitive/restricted behaviors. Autism is a brain disorder that typically appears during the first three years of life.

“This new IGNITE center is making that (lasting) impact that we’re looking for,” said Keya Pothireddy, 17, an Enloe senior and a vice president on the student council. “They’re providing high school graduates with all these different opportunities that we thought would be very, very helpful for them.

“Since 1 in 57 people in North Carolina have autism, there’s a lot of Enloe students who do have autism as well.”

Since the first Enloe Charity Ball in 2004, the event has grown beyond even the expectations of students and advisers. They’ve raised $742,862 in the first 13 years, with $180,000 last year going to the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness and $140,000 in 2016 to help Urban Ministries of Wake County.

Formal application process

The Charity Ball has become such a big fundraiser that the students go through a formal application and interview process to determine who will be the beneficiary. More than 40 applications were submitted this year, with the Autism Society being picked in August.

“It’s crazy,” said Nate Barilich, director of the Charity Ball and an English teacher at Enloe. “It is very competitive, which is awesome. The kids have flipped the table and become big players in the nonprofit sphere in Raleigh.”

This year’s application period began as plans were starting to open the IGNITE Center, according to Kristy White, chief development officer for the Autism Society of North Carolina. While the Evernham Family Racing for a Reason Foundation provided the initial start-up funds, White said it’s the money that will come from the Charity Ball that allowed them to open the center in Raleigh.

Sanjana Tharuvesanchi, 17, an Enloe senior and a vice president of the student council, said one of the reasons they were attracted to IGNITE is that it’s new to the area and something they could leave an imprint on.

“In future years we’ll be able to see the fruits of our labor,” she said.

The Raleigh site is modeled on the IGNITE center that opened in Davidson in 2013, which helps young people with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome make the transition from school to adult life.

Mindy Govan, who directs the IGNITE centers in Davidson and Raleigh, said the program serves a valuable need because there’s often a lack of services for people with autism once they graduate from high school.

Govan said that while the IGNITE members are often on target academically, they can use help learning “soft skills” such as how to get employment, learning to cook and making friends.

Allison Ellis said that her 19-year-old son Hunter can’t wait to tell her about what he’s done at IGNITE as they make the drive back to Clayton.

“He’s made some progress,” Ellis said. “He still needs to make more progress. But the good news is that he can be there as long as he needs to. He’s working on getting his independence up.”

Integral part of IGNITE

Govan said the Enloe volunteers have become an integral part of IGNITE as they interact with the members, who may have been bullied or felt like they were left out of the group when they were in high school.

“For some of our members, it’s been a new light on high school students because their personal experiences were not necessarily positive,” Govan said. “It also gives them the neuro-typical interactions with typically developed peers. It’s really nice.”

Pothireddy and Tharuvesanchi said it’s also been a rewarding experience for them and the other Enloe volunteers.

“It’s been really fun,” Pothireddy said. “All of the people here are around our age. So everyone we’ve met is just like our friends at school. It’s just like coming here and hanging out with our friends.”

With the Charity Ball less than two weeks away, there’s still a lot of work to do to raise the $200,000. Barilich, the ball’s director, said that $115,000 had been raised as of Wednesday.

Several fundraisers are planned over the next two weeks, including a concert, film festival and open microphone night. Tickets are also still available for the ball, which will be held Dec. 8 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Marbles Kids Museum, 201 E. Hargett St. in Raleigh.

“We have a lot more money to raise, but we’re on track to do it,” Pothireddy said. “But we can only do it with the help of our community.”

Enloe Charity Ball

Go to http://www.enloecharityball.org/ for more information on the Enloe Charity Ball, including how to donate money and buy tickets. The ball is Dec. 8 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Marbles Kids Museum in downtown Raleigh.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.