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A Touch of Understanding: Kindness Counts in Roseville, Rocklin and Granite Bay

03/29/2018 10:21AM

As a child, Leslie DeDora unintentionally made her aunt cry—and her inadvertent slight may have been the first step on DeDora’s path to found A Touch of Understanding (ATOU), a Granite Bay nonprofit that helps people relate to others with disabilities and provides a platform for individuals with disabilities to serve their community and educate others. Young DeDora questioned why her developmentally challenged aunt looked grown up but acted like a child. Her mother’s explanation gave her the information and guidance to change her behavior and the two became close. “She was such a blessing in my life,” DeDora, who now serves as ATOU’s executive director, says. “Because of [her], I befriended students in school with disabilities and saw how mistreated they were by those who didn’t understand.”

Convinced understanding was the key to acceptance and respect for disabled people, DeDora formed her organization in 1992 to stop the isolation and mistreatment of youth with disabilities —ensuring that all children feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. Incorporated since 1996, ATOU annually reaches 10,000 adults and youths in eight Northern California counties—more than 100,000 total, as of January. The group’s programs include:

In-school workshops

Two-thirds of us, the disability charity Scope reports, don’t feel comfortable around disabled people. That’s one of the barriers ATOU workshops—held at schools, churches, and social groups—try to break down. At each session led by a small staff and team of volunteers—many who have disabilities—the children share their own challenges and are free to ask questions. The program benefits all children, including kids with “invisible” disabilities, such as autism or learning problems, as well as those with physical disabilities. “They learn they all have strengths and challenges,” DeDora says. In the hands-on segment, youngsters can try out wheelchairs, handle braces, and prosthetic limbs or navigate without sight to understand the various challenges. After a workshop, schools report that the students are more sensitive, more accepting of differences, and befriend their classmates who have disabilities. “Children don’t mean to be mean,” DeDora says. “Often they’re motivated by fear and misunderstanding. We do a disservice when we don’t explain.” 

Youth F.O.R.C.E. (Friends Offering Respect-Creating Environment)

About half of Youth F.O.R.C.E.’s 200 members have disabilities. The kids meet once a month for activities ranging from snow sports and art projects to bowling. Recently, they held fund-raisers that paid for the entire wish list of Shriners Hospitals for Children–Northern California. “There aren’t many social opportunities for families affected by disabilities,” DeDora says. “This is a place where all children can be accepted.” 

Spirit of inclusion

Adults not acquainted with disabled people often fear interacting with them, too. To that end, ATOU offers adult workshops, modeled after the children’s program, at places of employment and organizations. One popular activity is “Dark Meal,” at which sighted people, wearing blindfolds, eat while being guided by a facilitator who’s blind. The most common feedback, DeDora notes, is “this was an [enlightening] experience.”

“A sense of purpose and belonging is essential for all human beings,” DeDora says. “We have to look beyond disability and see the person.” Her aunt, she adds proudly, knitted and donated 1,500 lap robes in her lifetime.

by Linda Holderness


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