A Touch of Understanding brings lessons in tolerance to local classrooms—and beyond.
By Lisa Thibodeau
As a child Leslie DeDora witnessed people treating her disabled aunt differently—she remembers their staring, teasing, even fear. These early experiences inspired Leslie to dedicate herself to fostering more compassion and respect in future generations. To that end, Leslie and her father, Edward Ennis, formed A Touch of Understanding. Based in Granite Bay, the not-for-profit organization strives to change public perceptions about individuals with special needs, in particular by educating school-age children.Since its inception in the 1990s, A Touch of Understanding (ATOU) has presented material to over 4,200 kids, reaching out to public schools in Greater Sacramento and the Sierra Foothills region.
ATOU’s 70-plus volunteers include individuals with autism, blindness and other disabilities. Kids ride in wheelchairs, walk with white canes, see prosthetics, hear the volunteers’ stories, and leave with a button that reads, “I choose to be kind.”
Darlene O’Brien has been an ATOU volunteer for over 9 years. She is a mom of two, a motivational speaker, a successful business owner, and she is completely blind. She brings her 10-year-old black lab, Callahan, Braille samples and her laptop with screen-reading software with her to the classroom. She loves the question-and-answer part of the presentation because the kids are so curious, so open and so honest.
“The questions are fantastic!” Darlene enthuses. They want to know, How do I get dressed? How do I match colors?” She explains to them that she uses her brain, her reasoning skills and her sense of touch. She loves dispelling myths about disabilities (yes, she can have a regular job) and encouraging kids to look at others with a different perspective, to see that we are all different and unique. “The greatest thing that happens as a result of the class is humanity.”
Roseville resident Laurie Newton also volunteers with ATOU. Her son, Cameron, who has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome (RTS) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), has inspired her to advocate for people with disabilities. Laurie says she appreciates being able to “plant the seed to be kind” in young, growing minds, and she has seen firsthand that the program works. “Kids are more open to saying hello, sharing equipment on the playground and making friendships with a disabled child if they are educated to the challenges these kids face,” she says. “It’s wonderful when these kids hear the message from someone besides a parent.”
To Leslie DeDora’s surprise and delight, she’s encountered a pay-it-forward mentality in some of the kids she has taught over the years. “College-age kids who went through the course [in grade school] come back to us and want to help.” She puts them to work right away, and they continue sharing the message: choose kindness every day.
Lisa Thibodeau is a local mom and writer.
Learning and Fun—for Everyone
In addition to her work as an educator and Executive Director for A Touch of Understanding, Leslie DeDora recently served as a consultant for the soon-to-be-open Sacramento Children’s Museum. Her expertise and experience will ensure that the museum really serves and honors families with special needs. Museum founder Kathleen Palley explains, “Everything from the flooring to the lighting to the exhibits was considered as to how a person with a disability would feel around them.” Special hours will even be made available for families who need to visit during a quieter, less stimulating time.
Kathleen Palley also collaborated with ATOU to create an online book designed to help autistic kids navigate the museum. “It will show them the exhibits, how to transition from one room to the next, and even help them to depart.” This way kids can prepare for their visit and know what they will encounter—even time-to-go should be smoother! The museum is striving to open this summer, with a friendly, calm and welcoming vibe.