August 07, 2005

Marino's philanthropy gives autism research, care major boost

WESTON, Fla. -- Dan Marino is building something in South Florida that may rival the success he experienced on football fields. To people in the field of autism treatment and research, Marino deserves to be inducted into their version of Canton as well.

"If there were a philanthropy Hall of Fame, he'd be right up there, too," says Mary Partin, CEO of the Dan Marino Foundation.

The Dan Marino Center at Miami Children's Hospital and its work with special needs children, particularly autism, is a legacy that continues to grow. Dan and Claire Marino got the $3 million center off the ground in 1998 with a $1 million donation.

It is the centerpiece of the quarterback's foundation, which he started with Claire in 1992 and which has funded more than $5 million to support treatment, outreach programs, services and research for children with chronic illnesses and developmental disabilities.

Marino started his foundation work after his second son Michael, 17, was diagnosed as slightly autistic. With early treatment, his son overcame many developmental problems other autistic children without such help do not. The Marinos wanted to help those children who weren't getting it.

"When people come up and say, 'You know, my kid has been over at your center and seen some of the doctors there and they made a difference and the place is great,' it makes you feel like a million bucks," Marino says.

The Marino Center treated about 20,000 patients last year with 50,000 visits, all youngsters up to 22 years of age. They receive care from neurologists, cardiologists, ophthalmologists, dermatologists and other specialists and the services include behavorial, rehabilitative and occupational therapy. The idea, Partin notes, was to have one place where people could come for all of their services. The center was cited in the June issue of South Florida Parenting magazine as the best services for special needs in Broward County.

"This," says Albert Rego, the center's administrative director, "wouldn't be here without him, simply stated."

The Marinos have a vision for more. As fellow Dolphins Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti is doing with spinal cord research at the Miami Project, Marino would like to spawn massive research into autism. His foundation is developing the Marino Autism Research Initiative. It will fund researchers, improved clinical service and clinical education at both the University of Miami and at Vanderbilt University.

The aim is for the initiative eventually to become an institute, which will require millions of dollars.

"The focus for us," Partin says, "is now research, research, research."

Another recent innovation started by the foundation and geared toward education is, a web site conceived by Marino and dedicated to autism and other neurological disorders. It is used as a resource for patients, their families, clinicians and educators. The plan is to ultimately turn the web site into a cable television channel.

The Marinos contribute $350,000 annually to their Foundation and raise much more. His annual golf tournament, held in February, netted $593,000 this year.

"The Marinos, if they never did another thing, they've already done everything they need to do," Partin says.

Don Strock, Marino's backup in his early Dolphins years, isn't surprised his close friend has devoted so much time and money to a cause helping children.

"The most emotional you'd see him was when the Make-A-Wish Foundation would bring children to practices, some dying of cancer or having other life-threatening situations. You could see the emotion in him -- not so much at the time, but afterwards. He'd get misty-eyed, and you know he gave it a lot of thought."

As Rego finishes a tour of the Dan Marino Center, he reflects on Marino's contribution to society away from football.

"I think Dan has performed at a higher level off the field than he did on the field, and that's a lot to be said. I get chills because it's going to go on for decades. For me, Danny means a whole lot more than passing touchdowns."

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