By Carina Livoti
When 13-year-old Half Hollow Hills student and autism advocate Nova Shek wrote to Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) asking if the county would participate in the international autism awareness campaign “Light it up Blue,” she did not expect him to light up a building.
“I have to be honest, we expected maybe that he would exchange the light bulbs,” Nova’s mother, Tina Shek, said.
Nova’s deep love for her 6-year-old brother, Zen, who was diagnosed with autism four years ago, drove her toward autism awareness and advocacy from at a young age.
“I love [my little brother] so much, but since he has autism a lot of people think he’s different and make him feel bad and maybe think he doesn’t have feelings,” Nova, of Dix Hills, said.
Tina explained that her daughter had come to her with an idea. She said she knew that people lit buildings across the world—like the Empire State Building and the Leaning Tower of Pisa—blue in honor of autism awareness month; she wondered if there was a place this could be done in Suffolk County.
That was when Nova reached out to Stern, asking if he would let her install some blue light bulbs in his office.
“She had met Legislator Stern because of her work starting a charity donating iPads to schools [for children with autism],” Tina said.
Nova started a nonprofit making and selling chocolate, puzzle-piece shaped lollipops in order to raise money to buy iPads for autistic students in schools. Two years ago, Stern honored her with a proclamation for that work.
In the time since then, Nova had become the co-chairperson for the Autism Speaks Long Island Youth Leadership Council.
“Nova had asked if it would be OK if we could put a blue light bulb in my legislative office… [We thought] we could do a little bit better,” Stern said.
Inspired by Nova’s passion and dedication, Stern partnered with County Executive Steve Bellone to enact a law to illuminate in blue light the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge for one week every April beginning on April 2, 2015.
Nova, who hopes to someday become a developmental pediatrician or a special education teacher, said she wanted to spread awareness and education so that autistic people would no longer be treated differently.
Stern said that Nova was a good example not only for young people, but for everyone.
“I think [Nova is] a very important example of how one small voice can make an impact,” he said.