by Sue Tomchin
A couple of images pop into Marla Garchik’s mind when she thinks back to her childhood, growing up in Pittsburgh surrounded by a loving extended family.
“I remember at holidays in particular my grandmother always saying we should set extra seats for anyone who doesn’t have a place to go,” she says.
And then there were the times she and her four sisters – Margie (her identical twin), Lori, Lynne, and Janie – would accompany her grandmother on one of her regular visits to the Hebrew Home to visit residents to say hello and play bingo. “She always said it’s nice to make others smile. She would lend a hand, especially if someone didn’t have family members or advocates to help,” Garchik, 55, recalls.
These and other “random acts of kindness” she saw her mother, her grandmothers, and other family members perform, helped shape her loving nature as well as her commitment to continue her family tradition of compassion and inclusiveness.
"It comes from my heart. When you first hear that diagnosis it is very overwhelming and isolating. I don’t want people to ever feel they are alone."
That commitment has driven Garchik’s work with an array of charitable organizations including the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, Boca Regional Hospital, the Jewish Social Service Agency, American Heart Association, Palm Beach County Food Bank, the American Cancer Society and more. Where she has made her greatest mark, however, is in the realm of autism. She has worked to raise more than $1 million for the Autism Speaks organization and is the founder and president of Peace Love Solve, an apparel company dedicated to raising awareness and acceptance of autism.
At her side, and passionately sharing her belief in “giving back” is Steve, her husband of 15 years. A real estate developer who founded the Garchik Family Foundation in memory of his father, he was deeply involved in philanthropy before they met.
“My husband is the person I credit with inspiring my endless efforts to take on meaningful causes that can help make a difference,” Garchik says. Among those causes is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Her husband was one of its first supporters going back to its planning days in the 1980s, and the couple’s commitment has remained steadfast: Early this year they co-hosted a luncheon for the museum in South Florida.
As a teen, Garchik worked at the local JCC with hearing impaired and special needs children and young adults. After attending Penn State, she studied at Gallaudet University to hone her interpreting skills. Later she had a successful career selling real estate, working for Star Power, a subsidiary of PEPCO, and in government sales for AT&T.
She had been living and working in Washington, D.C., for a number of years when, at 38, she met her husband on a blind date. She had never been married and her husband had been divorced for eight years and had three children. They married two years later.
“His three children became mine,” she says. “They call me Ima.”
Her initial interest in raising funds and awareness about autism came when her nephew was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a type of autism. Later, Garchik’s own son was diagnosed at age two-and-a-half with PDD-NOS, the diagnosis applied to children or adults who are on the autism spectrum but do not fully meet the criteria for another disorder on the spectrum.
A friend recommended that she and her husband meet an advocate from Autism Speaks. “From that day forward, my husband and I realized that our mission had been chosen for us,” she says. “We decided to dedicate our lives to helping families find answers.”
They undertook an intensive early intervention program of Applied Behavior Analysis therapy with their son. By the time he was five he had improved to such a great extent that they were told he no longer would have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. “Now he is an autism advocate and we are too,” says Garchik, who moved from the Washington area to Boca Raton, Fla., six years ago. “We live and breathe our work. Our whole family does.”
For more than a decade, Garchik has co-chaired walks in support of Autism Speaks both nationally and in Palm Beach. She has hosted many other fundraisers for the organization and serves as one of its ambassadors and advocates.
She is known as someone to call for guidance after hearing an autism diagnosis. “I speak to a lot of families with a newly diagnosed child and try to help them navigate through the process,” Garchik says.
In 2013, she got together with her children and sisters to launch Peace Love Solve. The company’s merchandise includes tanks, tees, sweats and jewelry featuring distinctive designs and messaging raising awareness and inspiring acceptance of those with autism. A portion of sales is generously donated to Autism Speaks. She also spearheads specialty campaigns to benefit other charities.
“It doesn’t take effort because it comes from my heart,” Garchik says of her work. “When you first hear that diagnosis it is very overwhelming and isolating. I don’t want people to ever feel they are alone.”