Santa Barbara resident Cara Gamberdella has been a competitive cyclist for the past three years. She was an accomplished triathlete at Cal Poly, and she grew up playing soccer, tennis and softball. On Monday, the lifelong athlete will add marathon runner to her list of physical accomplishments when she competes in the 114th Boston Marathon.

But for Gamberdella, the satisfaction of running in the prestigious event will pale to the reason for her efforts — her 11-year-old nephew, Genaro, who has severe autism.

Genaro — or “G” as he’s affectionately called by his family — received the diagnosis when he was only 2 years old. His mother, Liz Gamberdella, Cara’s sister-in-law, said she was stunned and crestfallen when she got the news.

“Autism. So many thoughts, emotions, opinions and ideas surround this one word,” Liz writes. “As a parent whose beautiful, perfect, 2-year-old son received this diagnosis, I can tell you it’s complicated.”

Autism-spectrum disorders encompass a wide range of symptoms, from social awkwardness to a complete inability to interact and communicate. Autism affects thousands of families every year. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an average of one in 110 children in the United States has some form of autism. Genaro’s autism is relatively severe, and at 11 years old, he is essentially nonverbal.

For the past six years, Cara’s younger sister, Jennifer, a Boston resident, has run the marathon for Genaro, raising money for autism research through the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, a Boston nonprofit organization that provides resources and services to families of autistic children.

Most participants have to run in a qualifying marathon in less than a certain time, depending on age and gender, to run in Boston, but certain charities can provide what are known as “charity waivers” for people running for an affiliate cause. This year, Jennifer’s connection to the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation told her there were a couple of extra spots available. Liz decided to run the marathon for her son, and Cara followed suit. The only catch was that the family had to raise $3,000 for the foundation for each spot.

Thanks to the overwhelming support of family and friends, three weeks and $9,000 later, the three women had their places reserved for the marathon — and the members of “Team Gamberdella” were ready to start training.

Jennifer Gamberdella, who for six years has run the Boston Marathon to raise money for autism research, finishes the 2008 race.

Jennifer Gamberdella, who for six years has run the Boston Marathon to raise money for autism research, finishes the 2008 race. She will run in Monday’s event with sister Cara, as nephew Genaro and other family members cheer them on. (Gamberdella family photo)

“The support that we have gotten has just been overwhelming,” Liz told Noozhawk. “People who heard what we were doing were really great from the start.”

Liz developed a stress fracture in her femur during her training and will have to watch from the sidelines come race day, which she said was a tough blow to take. But she will still be in Boston to support Cara and Jennifer, along with her husband, Marc, her daughters, 9-year-old Gianna and 6-year-old Lia — and, of course, G.

After raising the initial entry fee for the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation, Team Gamberdella decided to direct its fundraising efforts locally. They discussed a few options before agreeing on the Dos Pueblos Little League Challenger Division, a program that allows boys and girls with physical and developmental challenges to enjoy the full benefits of Little League participation in an environment structured to their abilities. G is a proud member of the Challengers, so it seemed a natural choice.

“We wanted to do something G does that would benefit him directly,” Cara said, “and we know the Challengers are run on a shoestring budget, and it’s just a fantastic program. It’s hard for other kids to know exactly how to act around a special-needs child. The Challenger Division gives other kids a chance to be around them and learn about them.”

Initially, Team Gamberdella set a goal of raising $5,000 for the Challengers, but thanks to the beneficence of its supporters, the squad has already passed that mark. A new goal of $8,000 was set, and with the marathon around the corner, team members are hoping to raise about $2,500 more to hit the target.

Cara and Jennifer Gamberdella are four years apart in age and have participated in sports together since they were girls, so on race day, there is bound to be some healthy sibling rivalry. Regardless of who emerges with the better time that day, however, the Gamberdella family knows that the real winner will be G. And while Liz is disappointed that she won’t be able to join the other two members of Team Gamberdella on the course, she said she is quite content getting to spend the day with her son — knowing that the world is that much closer to finding the answer to autism.

Liz and Marc Gamberdella said that while the past 11 years haven’t always been easy, they also gained in ways they never knew they would.

“There is something remarkable that comes out of all this,” Liz writes. “Your priorities and perspectives change. You see the world differently, and it’s a blessing. You love to a degree you didn’t realize was possible, and it’s enough. You work harder and are stronger than you ever imagined. You see beauty in so-called imperfection. You don’t sweat the little things and find joy in simplicity. Child becomes teacher — or perhaps always was.”

Click here to donate to Team Gamberdella, or click here to follow them on Facebook.

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.