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A Touch of Understanding celebrates 15 years in Granite Bay

Nonprofit has taught disability awareness to 50,000 students
By: Tinka Davi Press Tribune Correspondent
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“Respect means treating people the way you want to be treated. Everyone should be treated with respect.” That was the message on the whiteboard in the Dry Creek School classroom where around 35 fifth-graders gathered for a disability awareness program on a recent Thursday. They sat on the floor, listening and interacting with Leslie DeDora as she talked about understanding and accepting people who walk, talk or act differently than they do. She held up a shoe with a leg brace attached. “Would you be good at math if you wore this shoe?” she asked. The students responded positively. DeDora is executive director and founder of A Touch of Understanding, a nonprofit based in Granite Bay that provides disability awareness programs for youngsters throughout the Sacramento area and in Calaveras and Mariposa counties. DeDora just made her 5,000th school visit since she and her father started the program in 1992. A Touch of Understanding incorporated as a nonprofit in 1996 and is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a special ribbon cutting and program at Greenhills School in Granite Bay on March 23. DeDora explained to Dry Creek students how she became aware of disabilities. She talked about her aunt who was an adult but behaved like a child. DeDora said she teased her until her mother took her aside and said her aunt had an intellectual disability. “That used to be called mental retardation,” she said. Years later, while working as an aide in a second grade class at Greenhills School in Granite Bay where her children attended school, DeDora saw youngsters with disabilities who were targets for teasing. She started ATOU to help students understand their classmates who are different. “I knew in my heart the program had to be hands on,” she said. “We show students ways to adapt to different challenges and show them skills and tools that make it possible for someone with a disability to achieve their goals,” she said. “We don’t show disabilities in negative ways to promote pity. We promote respect.” Walking in someone else’s shoes A Touch of Understanding came prepared for the morning presentation at Dry Creek Elementary with a trailer full of wheelchairs and white canes, arms, legs and braces, headphones and mirrors, Braille slates and styluses and several volunteers. After listening to DeDora, students visited a vision station, a mobility station and an invisible disability station. They learned about autism and learning disabilities at the latter. At a table in one corner of the classroom, volunteer Julie Davison showed students how to write their names in Braille with a slate and stylus. She displayed a large Braille alphabet and explained that they had to punch the slate from right to left so the letters would protrude on the opposite side and they could read them with their fingers. The fifth graders then went outside where they walked along a sidewalk next to the play yard. They used white canes and did fairly well navigating the walk with their eyes closed. On the opposite side of the school yard, another group of students sat in wheelchairs, turning and pushing the wheels to travel across the blacktop and back. “Do your arms feel tired?” DeDora asked. “Next time you see a person in a wheelchair, notice how strong their upper body muscles are.” Another group checked out a table of prosthetics — arms, hands and legs, a tiny hand for a baby and a scoliosis body brace. Sylvester, one of the students, smiled as he tried on and caused the fingers of a prosthetic left hand to open and close by moving his right shoulder. Another student, Dylan, who manipulated a hand, called it “cool.” A third student encouraged the adults observing the class to try on the hand. At a third table, students donned headphones and listened to the various background noises a person with autism hears almost constantly making it difficult for him or her to focus on a conversation. “There are a lot of voices in the brain and they’re not connecting,” said volunteer Stephanie Solomon. She also talked about learning disabilities and told of a young man who was called “stupid” by classmates. “He became a medic in the Army and is now a nurse in Germany,” Solomon said. She held up a poster board with photos of four presidents, a couple of motion picture actors and other famous people, including Albert Einstein, explaining that they all had learning disabilities. To understand what people with learning disabilities experience, students penciled in a route on a map, only they didn’t look down at their papers, they looked into a mirror. All drew wiggly lines. The exercise has led to changed attitudes. DeDora said that during a presentation at a high school, one student told her, “My sister has learning disabilities and after this, I’m going to be more patient with her.” Volunteers share experience Moving into the “Big Room” at Dry Creek School, the students listened to volunteers talk about their disabilities and how they live with them. Among them was Tukey Seagraves, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a motorized wheelchair. She can no longer climb Half Dome at Yosemite but she can still go kayaking and skiing on special boards. “If you fall down, you’re already on the ground,” she said. Greg Elie, 29, was born with encephalitis and has had 15 surgeries. He talked about wearing a body brace for scoliosis, being deaf in his left ear and other problems. He likes video games and visiting Disneyland, where he doesn’t have to wait in lines. “I love to do the same things that you do, only I do them in a different way,’” he told the students. “Never doubt what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it.” Amanda Hussa, 22, who is autistic, talked about difficulties in her younger years. She now acts in local stage productions and memorizes her lines instantly. Others also showed videos of active childhoods and teen years before an accident that caused their disability. A Touch of Understanding has around 90 volunteers, about half with disabilities, who visit schools to explain and show how they get along with every day activities. ATOU also has a Youth Force of students from middle school on up who meet monthly with adult mentors and participate in the school programs. “They gain respect as experts among students,” DeDora said. ATOU’s staff includes three part-time and one “very part-time person,” said DeDora who is the only full timer. Jackie Callahan of Fair Oaks volunteers in the office, attends every presentation and is the timekeeper, sounding a slide whistle when youngsters need to move on to the next station. “My mother named me right,” she said. “I’m Jackie of all trades. I do whatever needs to be done to help Leslie in the office and at school presentations.” She claims to volunteer 80 hours a week, helping with editing, graphics, transportation and presentations. “I wouldn’t do this for money,” Callahan said. “I’ve been a volunteer since 2001 and it’s more like a family than a business and like a haven for people with disabilities.” John Anderson of Auburn came to Dry Creek School to observe the program as a potential volunteer. He wore a hearing aid at age 4 and progressively lost his hearing until becoming completely deaf at age 32. He had a cochlear implant in 1984, the first person east of the Mississippi to get one. He’s appeared on the “Today” show and National Public Radio. “People who are deaf didn’t accept me because I came from a hearing family and had a hearing mind,” Anderson said. Respect part of the lesson plan DeDora takes the program to around 50 schools a year. Schools pay about one-quarter to one-fifth of the cost of a visit (funding for ATOU comes from individual donations and grants). Many schools find the program is complementary to an anti-bullying program, DeDora said. At a presentation where students were asked why they bully others, one told her, “We tease them because we’re afraid.” But ATOU actually makes students more comfortable with disabled individuals, helping them understand how that person is different, but also how he or she is the same. “We don’t say ‘don’t’ and leave a vacuum,” she said. “Instead we show students how to behave.” A Touch of Understanding has reached 50,000 students, educating a generation of young people on how to treat individuals with disabilities. “Our goal is to bury the barriers of fear and misunderstanding and build bridges of friendship and respect,” DeDora said. ---------- ATOU 15th Anniversary Celebration What: Roseville Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting at 4:30 p.m. Includes program and light appetizers. Open to the public. When: 4:30-7 p.m. Friday Where: Greenhills Elementary School Multipurpose Room, 8200 Greenhills Way, Granite Bay Info: To RSVP and for information, call (916) 791-4146. AccessToCare Fair Hosted by A Touch of Understanding What: The 7th annual AccessToCare Fair offers practical and professional resources to individuals and families affected by disabilities, issues of aging and special needs. More than 65 organizations participating. Free seminars. Free childcare with creative activities. Free wheelchair safety and tune-up clinic. Family-friendly disability awareness activities. When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 21 Where: Bayside Church campus, 8191 Sierra College Blvd., Roseville Info: (916) 791-4146, www.accesstocarefair.com