Program helps kids accept others’ disabilities

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While visiting Kyrene de las Manitas Elementary School on Feb. 24, Gabrielle Ford and her dog Izzy, with a host of young eyes watching, shared their story.

Ford and Izzy, who both are living with rare muscle diseases, travel the country meeting with kids and taking the time to share their experiences.

Confined to a wheelchair, Ford has learned to cope with her situation and make the best of it. She has become an anti-bullying speaker. Ford and Izzy are one of three guests who have visited Manitas.

Earlier the students met Mark Trombino, who is living with dwarfism. In another assembly, the students watched skits on bullying. The assemblies are being held in connection with the school’s Character Counts program, which focuses on promoting respect, responsibility, caring, fairness, citizenship and trustworthiness.

Debbie Calleros, a fifth-grade teacher at Manitas, said Ford’s story helped the students develop a connection.

“(Ford) was bullied when she was in school. She’s telling her story and kind of raising the sensitivity of kids so they understand, from a personal perspective, the effects of the impact of bullying,” she said.

“It’s a person talking from true, real-life experience. When the kids are confronted with them and shake their hands afterward, it really brings it to light. I think it helps them put themselves in the position of the people that may be different than the way they are.”

The school’s goal is to promote tolerance and understanding. The assemblies are just one of its tools.

“Just because somebody is different doesn’t give you license to treat them differently or treat them with any less respect than you would another person,” Calleros said.

“It helps them develop sensitivity so they see through the external appearance, to the person inside.”

Class discussions led Calleros to believe the students are more aware of differences.

“The kids wouldn’t have realized if they would have seen Gabrielle walking down the hallway and not understood that she suffers from a neuromuscular disease-some kids, not all kids, but some kids, their first inclination might be to poke fun at them,” Calleros said.

“But once you understand there are reasons why people are the way they are, I think it does make kids less likely to spout off with a cruel remark that they might think is a joke, but it really is hurtful to the person that it’s aimed at.”

Luz Galindo and Matthew Anciaux, two fifth graders at Manitas, said they have been impacted.

“I thought it helped a lot of kids out. If they ever bullied somebody else, after the assembly, I saw a couple kids actually go and apologize to them. It made a big difference,” Matthew said.

Galindo has a personal experience with bullying. Her bully apologized after hearing the story of Ford and Izzy.

“I have had an experience in bullying. It actually made a huge difference in my life,” Luz said. “It actually made a big difference for that bully to apologize and say what he did wrong. It made a difference because it made people understand what it felt like to be bullied. It felt a lot better to get that off my shoulders.”

The subject of bullying has become a hot topic in classrooms, Matthew said.

“It got really deep in people,” he said. “We talked about how it affected us. We had discussions and let out our feelings. I thought it was very emotional.”

Luz has learned to wear the other shoe.

“The assembly has actually meant a lot to me. You should care for other people instead of just caring for yourself,” she said.

It is a lesson many students will take with them for years to come.

“It will affect me in the ongoing years, probably the rest of my life,” said Matthew.

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