How did I not know that they were in my community for the last 95 years? How did I not know that Community Gatepath and their work for greater independence for children with special needs and disabilities was here for us? Perhaps it was because we didn’t know my son was autistic until he was 13 and when he was diagnosed, we were already addressing his needs. And now that he’s all grown up, we just have our own out-of-the-box ways to help him and he’s thriving. But I’m really happy to know about Community Gatepath now and the impact they are making for those with disabilities.
I was inspired by an organization that has such an uplifting and positive attitude about “turning disabilities into possibilities.”
At their recent “Power of Possibilities Recognition Event” I had an opportunity to learn more about the people behind their organization and have an exclusive one-on-one post event interview with Holly Robinson Peete, actress, author, talk show host, autism mom and the event’s keynote speaker.
Turning Talents into Dreams and Achievements
Bryan Neider is the incoming CEO of Community Gatepath having served on their board for nearly 15 years. He worked for 26 years with Electronic Arts, a corporation dedicated to fostering diversity and inclusion within the workplace and in communities.
“The staff that Electronic Arts has from Gatepath is an equal partnership and they are friends. We do not think of them as a disability. It is an opportunity for all of us in the community to grow and learn.”
As the new leader of Gatepath, it’s clear he has a passion for turning people’s talents into paths for helping them pursue their dreams and achieve their goals. The emphasis is on ‘their’ goals, not ours. Take, for example, John Mojica who dreamt of becoming a checker at Safeway. Community Gatepath and Safeway worked together to create a culture of acceptance and opportunity for John. He worked hard and was able to realize his dream. And it’s because of his attention to detail and dedication to his job that he was able to catch a couple who were trying to use counterfeit $100 bills. John is a model Safeway employee and liked by all. When he stepped up to the podium to receive a special award, I was moved to tears over his genuine pride and confidence.
The Japanese retailer, Uniqlo, is another company deserving of a shout out for its commitment to hiring adults with special needs and disabilities. They’ve hired several of Gatepath’s participants in multiple stores throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. They are giving them more independence, self-confidence and a chance to succeed in the workplace and in their personal lives.
I dream that one day all companies will have the same corporate mindset as Uniqlo:
Never Let Anybody Limit the Possibilities
Bryan Neider introduced the keynote speaker by saying, “Holly Robinson Peete has not just spread autism awareness…she’s opened doors.”
On stage, Holly talked about her family’s journey with autism—how at 2 years old, her son RJ stopped making eye contact and interacting with his twin sister. She knew in her gut that something was wrong. When he was diagnosed with autism, the doctors told her all the “would nots:”
…he wouldn’t make it through school
…he would never have real friends
…he would never have a real conversation
…he would never say I love you
…he would never play sports
Now 18 years later, her son has proved all those ‘would nots’ all wrong.
“He is so phenomenal and advocates for himself. He has challenges but he has a very bright future and I’m so proud of him because he’s been able to show that you NEVER let anybody limit the expectations or possibilities for your child’s life.”
After the event, when all the books had been signed and photos taken, I had an exclusive opportunity to sit down with Holly, face-to-face, mom-to-mom to talk about changing the world for our kids.
“I wouldn’t change my son for the world, but I would change the world for my son.”
Holly says that many in Hollywood won’t speak about their own personal experiences with autism because they are afraid of the stigmas attached to it. Lately, there has been movement in the right direction but Holly wants a seismic shift off the Richter scale when it comes to public figures speaking about autism and a national autism initiatives agenda.
But how do we get those in the mainstream to care?
“I urge any of you who have any kind of platform to spread awareness about autism or special needs and how valuable our children are…do it so there’s always hope for them.”
Holly and the entire Peete family will be taking their advocacy a step further into the limelight. “For Peete’s Sake” is an upcoming new docuseries and an insider’s look into Peete’s family life on the Oprah Winfrey Network. It comes at a time when her son RJ gets his first job and deals with the realities of becoming more independent.
Holly hopes that the show will put an even greater national spotlight on autism awareness and the need for employment opportunities. She wants the mainstream to see how valuable those with autism and special needs are to society. Her hope is that people and companies will learn that it’s beneficial to look beyond disabilities to discover there’s “power in possibilities.”
Shattering the Stereotypes
Holly followed her keynote by joining a panel discussion with actor David DeSanctis and director Chris Dowling to talk about the media’s role in more accurately portraying people with disabilities in film and television.
Chris Dowling is a director, writer and producer of films. He just released “Where Hope Grows,” a film about how a young man with Down syndrome inspires a professional baseball player struggling to overcome alcohol addiction. He also recently finished producing, “Asperger’s Are Us: A True Story,” a documentary about the first autism-only comedy troupe.
David DeSanctis is the first person with Down syndrome to have a leading role in a feature film in the United States.
“You spend a second with this guy and you realize that he’s just like you and me,” said Chris. Chris has no familial experience to those with special needs but after working with David and being involved with the Asperger’s Are Us documentary, he believes that “the potential of those with special needs is limitless if given the chance to try.”
Everyone on the panel agreed that films and television should include characters with disabilities with regular storylines, not just those that are focused on their disabilities. “We need to shatter the stereotypes,” said David.
The Power of Possibilities
There are days when I as an autism mom feel isolated and alone. During those times I wonder if the world will ever change and be a more welcoming place for those who are different. When I have my moments of doubt, I will think about Community Gatepath, its participants and staff, Holly Robinson Peete, Chris Dowling and David DeSanctis and know that I am not alone. I will think about you, dear readers—the moms, dads, caregivers and individuals—who are working to create a new, more accepting world. And I will find hope in the “Power of Possibilities.”
Find out more:
- Community Gatepath website, Facebook Page and Twitter
- Holly Robinson Peete website and Hollyrod Foundation
- Where Hope Grows website and Facebook Page
- Aspergers Are Us documentary
- Read our interview with the director of Aspergers Are Us: A True Story in Zoom Autism Magazine
Images courtesy of Community Gatepath