August 07, 2002
By Dennis Wilken
Sue Dahlin single-parented two children and carried on a teaching career earlier in her adult life. Along the way, this former physical education teacher was stricken with MS (multiple sclerosis).
But even her illness didn't stop Dahlin.
Not long ago, Dahlin decided children needed to be educated about people with disabilities.
And she knew, from her years of teaching in the Chicago area, that kids learn best by seeing and doing.
"My idea was, wouldn't it be great to help the kids in an interactive
way, help them understand, so that when they come across people with disabilities
- as they will, day after day - they will understand," Dahlin said.
From that seedling idea, a tree called YADA (Youth Awareness Disability Assemblies) is growing.
YADA, a program in which children are taught by the disabled themselves, began in Seattle-area schools this past year. Dahlin said it has been a learning experience for her and the other YADA volunteers, as well as the children involved.
The pilot program - featuring Dahlin and other folks with disabilities demonstrating how they survive and thrive by interacting and playing with elementary school students - was launched at West Woodland Elementary School, and it was done in a day.
And that, Dahlin said, was a mistake.
"The biggest surprise was we thought we could do in all in one day. Even the poor service dog was tuckered out," Dahlin said.
A major problem, as Dahlin sees it, was a lack of time for every child to participate.
"Kids need to feel they are all involved. Well, not just kids, I guess," Dahlin said with a chuckle.
So, from there, the YADA program was expanded to two days.
"We come in at nine in the morning and go to about three, with an hour or so off for lunch," Dahlin explained.
And YADA doesn't come in empty-handed. The group takes 50 to 60 youngsters at a time in five groups through various stations, each featuring something different from paralyzed veterans in racing wheelchairs to a sensory station with specially designed sunglasses that block peripheral vision.
"We have a station where kids can walk on one leg in a straight line. And we have a Braille machine where they can type and see their names in Braille," Dahlin said.
Even dyslexia is dealt with. The group also introduces the youngsters to a service dog provided by the Delta Society.
"Most kids are probably familiar with guide dogs, but many aren't aware
that there are service dogs. The dog demonstrates by retrieving a cane,
a crutch, even something as small as one dime," Dahlin said.
YADA's human volunteers are every bit as extraordinary as the canine helpers.
Tom Bungert, a Navy veteran, is one of the most popular YADA volunteers. Bungert recently returned from the 22nd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cleveland, Ohio, with four medals, including a gold in the 220, a silver in the wheelchair slalom and a bronze in wheelchair bowling.
A veteran who suffered a spinal cord injury in his neck, Bungert is a quadriplegic.
"Basically all he can do is use his head. He has a special chair, and he loves kids, and kids love him and are excited by him. But in addition to all that, he is a living example," Dahlin said.
Bungert ended up in a wheelchair after he drank a couple of beers and decided to drive, resulting in the accident that left him paralyzed.
"You hear 'don't drink and drive,' but here's this young man, lying in front of you who is a living example of what can happen to you if you do," Dahlin said.
Chuck Karczewski is the National Director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and a YADA Board member. ementary schools after all - people who have a vision of what we are doing, and who, of course, like children and are good with children, and can help them learn what we are trying to teach," Dahlin said.
Anyone wishing to contribute, volunteer or obtain more information can contact the YADA Committee of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at 284-4236, ext. 226.
Freelance writer Dennis Wilken is a Queen Anne resident.
© Queen Anne and Magnolia News 2002