Humanitarian Award winner inspiring

Lorri Shealy (now Unumb) stands with Dale Earnhardt in Victory Lane as Darlington's Miss Southern 500 in 1990. Courtesy NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The voice on the other end of the phone Thursday morning was tired.

It also was inspirational.

And passionate.

The voice on the other end of the phone was Lorri Shealy Unumb, exhausted after returning late Wednesday night from meeting with legislators in Ohio to advocate making treatment for autism a part of coverage for those with private health insurance in all 50 states.

Chances are you haven't heard of Unumb, unless you saw her at Darlington 22 years ago when she was Miss Southern 500 and joined Dale Earnhardt in Victory Lane. You may have heard of her if you have a child with autism, and you certainly know of Unumb if you witnessed her being honored at last Friday's Sprint Cup Awards banquet in Las Vegas with the second annual Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award.

She's worth getting to know.

What this Lexington, S.C., native does won't make racing better, put more fans in the stands, or help television ratings. She isn't trying to help team owners lure in more sponsors in these still economically tough times.

But what she does is worth talking about, because Unumb makes a difference.

I'll admit I missed last Thursday's reception honoring Unumb in Las Vegas because the After The Lap driver event ran long. I'll admit I was backstage at the banquet -- when Unumb was awarded $100,000 by the NASCAR Foundation to create a scholarship to help children attend the Autism Academy she started in Columbia, S.C. -- talking to drivers about things I'd heard them say a thousand times.

Drivers are who I'm paid to cover, who you come to this site to read about.

But even the drivers would have to admit Unumb's story is far more important than whether Clint Bowyer makes peace with Jeff Gordon or whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most popular driver for the 10th straight year.

The story that landed Unumb here began about 10 years ago. Her then-2-year-old son, Ryan, was diagnosed with autism. She and her husband, Dan -- both attorneys in the Washington, D.C., area at the time -- were shocked when doctors gave them the news.

They were stunned to the point of outrage when they discovered their health insurance wouldn't pay a penny for the $70,000-a-year treatments that could potentially give their son a functional life.

But their immediate focus was on getting their son help, so they moved into a smaller house, lived on Dan's salary, and used Lorri's salary to cover the treatments.

They sacrificed.

Remember, these are two attorneys making decent wages. Imagine if a child with autism was born into a lower-income family?

Unumb did. She became more outraged, realizing there were kids who never would get the chance at the better life the treatments could provide.

"I'd go to support-group meetings for other moms," said Unumb, who two years into the treatments had moved back to South Carolina to teach law at the College of Charleston. "They didn't have a house they could sell to pocket the difference, and they didn't have a second salary to sacrifice. I kept thinking, 'This is so unfair.'"

So in the summer of 2005 Unumb began her journey that led her to NASCAR's grandest stage. She wrote a bill, something she knew nothing about, that would make it mandatory for private insurance companies in South Carolina to include treatment for autism.

She spent two years lobbying almost every legislator in the state on why the bill should be passed. In June 2007, she got the bill passed in the House and Senate only to have then-Gov. Mark Sanford veto it at the 11th hour.

"At 10:30 at night," Unumb recalled. "I had to stay up, call all my autism pals around the state and ask them to show up at the statehouse the next day to see if we could override the veto."

About 75 showed up, and the typically conservative legislature voted for the override.

Thus was born Ryan's Law.

But that was just the beginning of Unumb's amazing story. She began getting calls from people in other states pleading for her help there. She began holding informal summits with parents of children with autism in her classroom at the college and a back room in the library.

"I was just doing this as a mom," Unumb said.

It became a career when the national nonprofit organization Autism Speaks, founded by former NBC president Bob Wright, asked Unumb to quit her job and work to make what happened in South Carolina happen in every state.

That was in 2008. Today, 30 other states have passed laws similar to Ryan's Law.

"It's exhausting for me personally," Unumb said. "But I'm happy to have a demanding travel schedule, because that means kids in all these states are able to access the treatment they need."

But there's no celebratory sound in the voice on other end of the phone. Unumb stays awake nights worried about children in the 18 states -- North Carolina, the home of NASCAR included -- where the bill hasn't passed.

So her journey continues.

But this story has another layer, one that found Unumb sharing the stage in Vegas with champion Brad Keselowski and team owner Roger Penske.

"Knowing there are parents who are going to be emotionally devastated by the diagnosis, and then by the financial ruin they are going to encounter," she said. "Or worse, the inability to get treatment for their child."

Now you can hear the pain in the voice on the other end of the phone.

"That is such a knife in the stomach to know your child needs the therapy, know it works, but know they can't get it."

Two years ago, Unumb learned that the treatment which helps about 50 percent of children with autism enter the first grade with typical students wasn't enough for Ryan. He needed a special school, one South Carolina didn't have.


Knowing there are parents who are going to be emotionally devastated by the diagnosis, and then by the financial ruin they are going to encounter. Or worse, the inability to get treatment for their child. That is such a knife in the stomach to know your child needs the therapy, know it works, but know they can't get it.


-- Lorri Shealy Unumb

So she visited the Princeton Child Development Institute in New Jersey. She and her husband considered uprooting their family of now five and moving.

"I finally thought: If we pick up and move, that will solve the problem for exactly one child, Ryan, and all the rest of the kids in South Carolina still will not have this kind of alternative placement," Unumb said.

So with no business background and no financial backing, Unumb founded a school in the Sunday school building at Capital City Baptist Church in Columbia.

It started in August 2011 with three children and now serves a dozen. By the beginning of next year, enrollment will be up to 18.

It was the school, the Autism Academy of South Carolina, that nominated Unumb for the Betty Jane France Award.

"It is really difficult for me to express what the financial contribution from the NASCAR foundation will do for this growing Autism Academy," Unumb said.

She doesn't have to. You can hear that in her voice.

You could see it in her smile -- one I saw later, in a photograph, since I had missed the presentation -- as she hugged Ryan on stage at Wynn Las Vegas.

NASCAR makes a difference with a lot of organizations such as the one Unumb is involved in. Elliott Sadler and Jamie McMurray have relatives with autism, and both make financial commitments to help raise awareness through their foundations.

Denny Hamlin's car had an Autism Speaks paint scheme at the spring event in Dover. His primary sponsor, FedEx, named the race the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.

Ryan attended that event, his first in NASCAR.

"I couldn't tell if he understood it," Unumb said. "But he enjoyed the atmosphere, which is odd because a lot of kids with autism don't do well at all with the noise."

Yes, the trip included a visit to Victory Lane. And yes, I couldn't help but ask Unumb what it was like standing in Victory Lane with Earnhardt after he won the 1990 Southern 500.

"I was a little starstruck," she admitted.

If Earnhardt were alive today, he'd probably be struck by the work Unumb has done with autism. He'd probably admit the impact she has made is far more significant than anything he ever accomplished on the track.

The voice on my end of the phone certainly was touched.

And starstruck by somebody who wasn't a driver.