Night Walking and Golden Living

“Living my life like it’s golden.”

Earlier this week, Chad Whyte spoke of the challenges of growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome (described as a mild form of autism) – and how he overcame them and embraced life. Mr. Whyte is a past student of the Genesis Academy. Founded in September 2003, the school on South Camp Road in Kingston enrolls students with learning challenges (ages 12 to 21 years) and also has a vocational/occupational school for those over 21 years old.

Genesis Academy is one of several institutions and associations for Jamaicans with special needs supported by the Digicel Foundation. Mr. Whyte was speaking at the launch of the Foundation’s Third Annual 5K Walk/Run for Special Needs. Yes, Jamaicans will be running (and walking, in my case) for a good cause on October 11 from Digicel’s head office in downtown Kingston…in the dark. This year, funds will go towards the Foundation’s scholarship program for Jamaicans with special needs, called “Showcase your SUPERabilities.” 

Chad Whyte (2nd right), past student of Genesis Academy and keynote speaker at the launch of the Digicel Foundation 5k Run/Walk, is flanked by partners who turned out for the event on Wednesday, August 13. From left are: Lorna Clarke, Director of Corporate Communications, Urban Development Corporation, Antonica Gunter-Gayle, Director, Early Stimulation Plus and Jo-Anderson Figueroa, Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, Digicel Foundation. (Photo: Digicel Foundation)
Chad Whyte (2nd right), past student of Genesis Academy and keynote speaker at the launch of the Digicel Foundation 5k Run/Walk, is flanked by partners who turned out for the event on Wednesday, August 13. From left are: Lorna Clarke, Director of Corporate Communications, Urban Development Corporation, Antonica Gunter-Gayle, Director, Early Stimulation Plus and Jo-Anderson Figueroa, Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, Digicel Foundation. (Photo: Digicel Foundation)

Mr. Whyte was candid. High school was a harsh and distressing experience, as most of his classmates discriminated against him and his teachers just considered him badly behaved. “I was traumatized,” he said. But with the love and support of his family – who were in fact very proactive in dealing with the terrible situations he found himself in – he found strength and self-belief. Moreover, with his family’s help, he was able to enlighten much of the school community on the importance of tolerance and acceptance of each other’s differences. This message is one of the most important ones Jamaicans (and, in fact, the entire world) could possibly learn at this time. It’s a plain fact that a great deal of ignorance surrounds people with disabilities – and anyone considered “different.” But empathy is something that can be learned. Compassion can become a habit, if we try…

By the way, are we training enough teachers in Special Needs Education? I wonder. The Digicel Foundation plans to build ten new special needs Centres of Excellence, in celebration of its tenth anniversary. The Foundation has already made grants for two such schools to be built – in Montego Bay (the NAZ Children’s Centre) and Kingston (the STEP Centre). It is also supporting state-run entities low on resources – as almost every state-run entity is, these days.

Of course, the Digicel Foundation’s aim is not merely to support Jamaicans who are differently abled with more funds and equipment, although that is significant enough. There is a huge need for the wider public to become more aware and sensitive to their fellow citizens with special needs. And to become more aware you must also learn and understand more about the huge challenges they face. The Digicel Foundation is seeking to help bridge that knowledge gap.

Special Needs student Jadane Martin (second right) from Early Stimulation Plus, reading to (from left) Brian Schmidt, Marketing Manager, Irie FM; Major General Robert Neish, Digicel Foundation Vice-Chairman and Judine Hunter, Special Needs Programme Manager, Digicel Foundation. Occasion was the official launch of the Digicel Foundation 5k Run/Walk on Wednesday, August 13. (Photo: Digicel Foundation)
Special Needs student Jadane Martin (second right) from Early Stimulation Plus, reading to (from left) Brian Schmidt, Marketing Manager, Irie FM; Major General Robert Neish, Digicel Foundation Vice-Chairman and Judine Hunter, Special Needs Programme Manager, Digicel Foundation. Occasion was the official launch of the Digicel Foundation 5k Run/Walk on Wednesday, August 13. (Photo: Digicel Foundation)

A good way to do this, I would suggest, would be through a person-to-person experience. There is no better way to get rid of all the prejudices and misconceptions you might have.  Get to know someone who is visually impaired, for example. Sit down and talk to that someone for just a few minutes, and your eyes will be opened. Ask questions, and you will receive answers, although you may not always find them palatable. Ask that person: How do others treat you? What kinds of relationships do you have with those who are able? What are the simple physical challenges you most often encounter?

Last year, the Night Walk/Run attracted 7,400 participants. This year, the Digicel Foundation would like to gather 10,000 Jamaicans together to run and walk from the big, brightly lit Digicel building out into the darkened streets of downtown.

As I did the first time, I will be in the group that hangs back, waiting for the runners to lead the charge.

And I will be keeping Mr. Chad’s Whyte’s words in mind: “Life is a gift and I respect and cherish it. So I am living my life like it’s golden.”

Registration for the run/walk is now open. To register, go to http://www.runningeventsja.com or download the Digicel 5K mobile app, now available on Google Play Store. A special rate of J$1000 will apply to those who use the app and who register before August 31. Registration will close on September 12 or as soon as maximum capacity is reached.

For more information visit the Digicel Foundation website at http://www.digiceljamaicafoundation.org. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter @digiceljafdn.

October 2012: Participants get ready to start walking at the first Night Walk. (My photo)
October 2012: Participants get ready to start walking at the first Night Walk. (My photo)

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