Kids Who K.A.R.E













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Autism is a neurological disorder which affects a person's behavior, social skills, communication skills, learning capabilities, and overall understanding of the world. It affects different people with varying degrees of severity, generally impairing the ability to interact socially, impairing verbal and nonverbal communication, increasing sensitivity to light, textures, tastes, and sounds, and often causing repetitive behaviors such as flapping one's arms or echoing TV dialogue over and over.

Scientists and researchers have been working for years to identify the cause of autism, but to no avail. Every time substantial evidence is found to support a certain theory, more evidence is found disproving it. There is also no known cure. Autism is occurring more and more frequently, with some reports claiming that rates have tripled within the last ten years.

An incredibly difficult decision loomed before me. It was a random Tuesday night, a little after 1 a.m., and I was sitting with my legs crossed at my computer, weighing the pros against the cons for my two options. To do my chemistry homework and go to bed, or to continue browsing through old messages posted on my high school's underground student website... that was the question.

Incredibly difficult decision? Yeah, right. The answer was obvious: colligative properties would just have to wait.

As I was lazily surfing through the message boards, a title jumped out at me: "To Kill a Retard." What I read when I opened it drove any lingering drowsiness far to the back of my mind. Someone had posted a message saying that they thought all mentally retarded people should be killed. In a very Hitler-reminiscent way, they called mentally retarded individuals useless, and even a "plague." I cannot say for certain whether or not the author's intent was to be humorous, but even if it was, I was far more disturbed than amused.

For me, the issue is personal: my little brother is autistic.

Up until reading this thread, I had always thought of my hometown as a fairly disability-friendly community. A large percentage of the students at my school and the adults in my community take advantage of the many special needs services that are available. I was never worried about what might happen when my brother gets to high school until I saw those words. The level of ignorance and intolerance that I saw expressed by my own classmates was enough for me to be nauseated. How can people that I know and see in school every day possibly make such hateful and blatantly inhumane statements?

I feel sorry for everyone who thinks that offensive "humor" is the only way to react to differences among people and for everyone who thinks that mentally retarded people are "useless." They have obviously never taken the time to get to know someone who has a mental disability, but instead just jump to believe stereotypes so that they can feel better about their own shortcomings.

Although most people aren't hateful, I have noticed that a lot of people aren't aware of the issues faced by mentally challenged people. As a matter of fact, many people don't know what autism is, and I noticed that many younger kids were not friendly or accepting of my brother or any of their mentally challenged peers. I felt that this was due to a lack of sufficient education as to why "special" kids act the way that they do, and I decided to try and do something about it.

After recruiting my friend Rachel to help me brainstorm, we came up with a plan. First of all, in order to promote awareness and tolerance of autism and other neurological disorders, we wanted to write and publish a series of educational, illustrated children's books about mental disabilities and present and donate these books to elementary schools in our area. In addition, we would give a copy of the books to the local library. We also wanted to create a kid-friendly web site with a similar focus. Lastly, to raise money for autism research, we would hold annual fundraisers.

With the help of a $100 grant from Kids in Community Service, we were able to hold a fundraiser at a local park, complete with a moonwalk, DJ, raffle, and more. We raised over one thousand dollars, which was donated to Unlocking Autism and the Autism Society of America. But without expensive supplies and professional help, Rachel and I found ourselves unable to carry out the other two aspects of our grand plan.













rainman
Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic man in the 1988 movie, "Rainman," which also stars Tom Cruise.

This is where Youth Venture came in. After I saw a newspaper article about the non-profit organization, which provides funding to teenagers who want to organize community service projects or start up a business, I sent in an application. To our shock and excitement, the venture idea was accepted! Now, many months later, Rachel and I, along with several other friends, are able to achieve our goal.

This is one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done. I know that I am doing all that I can to help my brother, not only to possibly be cured one day, but also to be understood by those around him.

I hope that in the future people will continue to exercise their right to free speech, as it is an important pillar of our society and our country. But I have a favor to ask: Until you have established a relationship with someone who is different than you are, don't allow prejudice and fear to get the better of you. Until you have seen the big picture, don't assume that someone has no purpose in life. Everyone on this earth has a purpose. It may not be apparent, but there isn't one single human being who does not, however indirectly, make a lasting imprint on society.

Having a younger brother with special needs has definitely impacted the way that I view the world around me, and has made me a more accepting and tolerant person. Without my brother I probably would not be where I am today. He is one of the most empathic and understanding people I know, always quick with a hug when I'm sad, even if he can't comprehend what has made me unhappy. I know I sound incredibly over-dramatic, but my brother is a human being with feelings just like everyone else. That's more than enough "purpose" for me.

Websites:
www.autism.com
www.thinkquest.org/library/site_sum.html?lib_id=2882&team_id=5852 (website I made with a team of peers for a contest in 5th grade)

Jessica Leving is a high school sophomore from Chicago who loves reading, writing, photography, and sleeping. In addition to founding Kids Who K.A.R.E, she serves as editor of her school newspaper and does various volunteer work around her community every week. In the future Jessica plans to attend college and pursue a career that will allow her to continue her writing.

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