When John and Traci Schneider hosted their first Prime Time celebrity waiter event in 2012, they had concerns about how many people would actually buy tickets and show up. The Seahawks general manager and his wife were still relatively new to the area, and they weren't sure how the event, which raises funds for Ben's Fund and Families for Effective Autism Treatment of Washington, would be received.
"We were going on radio as much as we could and kind of begging people to go to the event," said John Schneider, who is heading into his eighth season as Seattle's general manager. "Now there's like a waiting list to go."
That year's event was a big success, as were the four that have followed since, and on Thursday night, for the sixth straight year, Prime Time will take place in a packed restaurant to raise funds for a very worthy cause.
The Schneider's oldest son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism when he was three, and while the immediate concern was on how to take care of their own son, they eventually saw an opportunity to help other families with autistic children, and in particular those families without the same financial means that they were fortunate enough to have. With that, Ben’s Fund was born, and since its launch, Ben's Fund has given out more than 1,100 grants totaling more than $1 million. The grants go to everything from laptops and safety equipment to access to more than 50 different therapies such as horse riding, taekwondo and swim therapy.
"It's so cool to see," Traci Schneider said. "I was hoping we were going to raise like $150,000 the first year, and I think we raised $300-something thousand. Ever since then, it's just gotten bigger. It's amazing.
"We only hoped the events would be as much fun as they are and that they would take on a life of their own. The fact that we've raised as much money as we have blows my mind. It just opens up the door to so many other opportunities that we can think of now to help support families affected by autism."
Part of what makes Prime Time, which is sold out again this year, such a special event is that so many Seahawks players and coaches are there interacting with fans. It's a fun event in part because it turns competitive, with players trying to earn the most "Ben Bucks" by signing autographs, posing for pictures or even making phone calls to friends or family members of attendees at the event.
"The fact that the Seahawks organization first and foremost, then obviously the players getting involved, it's such an incredible thing for the whole autism community in the state of Washington," John Schneider said. "It has been real neat how it's developed into such a fun, competitive event. It's not too big, it's a pretty intimate setting, so the people who are there really feel like they're part of something, they're right there with the players while they're competing and doing different things to earn Ben Bucks to raise money. It's a really, really special deal."
Added Traci Schneider: "And I've heard too through players and coaches and John that it has turned into a really cool team-building event for the players, because they're in a different setting and they're doing something a little different and they're competing against each other."
Prime Time is just one way the Seahawks are supporting Autism Awareness Month. For the entire month of April, 10 percent of the sales for every regular-priced hat and knit cap sold at Seahawks Pro Shop locations will go to Ben's Fund. An online auction, which included a Kam Chancellor autographed football, a Russell Wilson autographed helmet and a Tyler Lockett autographed jersey, was also held with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Ben's Fun. Donations to Ben’s Fund can also be made here. And since 2015, the Seahawks have partnered with Autism Friendly Locations to provide toolkits to make CenturyLink Field and gameday activities more user friendly for fans on the spectrum. The toolkits, which include noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs, sensory toys and an identifier badge, were also available at the Pro Bowl this year and Traci Schneider has heard from other NFL teams looking to also make their gameday experience more Autism friendly.
"It's so cool. It is so amazing to see," Traci Schneider said of the Seahawks' involvement. "Thinking back on the first year when we were planning the dinner and kicking off Ben's Fund and turning all of this stuff we had been thinking about doing for a while into a reality was amazing. But the things that have come our way and the team support that has surrounded this very personal cause is incredible. The fact that they do a percentage of the sales from the Pro Shop, and the auction stuff, and the staff in the building that supports the event. It really has morphed into something so much bigger than we could have imagined."
Ben Schneider is a freshman in high school now and is thriving, in part because of the support and resources his family was able to provide. A decade ago, John and Traci Schneider were just new parents trying to handle two young kids, one of whom had autism, but now, thanks to Ben's Fund and events like Prime Time, they've helped hundreds of families while also bringing attention to an important cause.
"You think back to the day you got the diagnosis and what life looked like, and the journey that put us on," Traci Schneider said. "I feel more grateful than anything. I kind of feel like I was supposed to do this. It's such a labor of love for me. When you have a child on the spectrum, it can be so isolating. Not only isolating, but just financially daunting. So those two things were what kind of what carried me through on the whole idea of doing something like this, because we wanted to reach out to parents that were going through the same thing and we also wanted to give the financial support to families that couldn't financially do what we were able to do. We felt that sense of responsibility.
"That's just kind of where our journey went, and then when John got the job here as the G.M., I was like, 'This is our window, this is our chance,' because you never know how long you're going to be the same place. To have that opportunity present itself for John professionally also opened the door for us to do this as well. It's so amazing. I can't believe how much it has grown and how much we're able to do and how far things have gone and reached and just the opportunities that have presented themselves, and the people who have jumped on board and supported this. It's just really cool. It's just really amazing to see where it all started and where we are now. It's unbelievable, actually."
Prime Time celebrity waiter event raises money for Ben's Fund, is now in its fifth year.