MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- Children at Mamaroneck Central Elementary School heard a gold-winning Paralympic athlete and a panel of high school students with learning disabilities speak on Thursday. The programs were part of Building Bridges, and annual week-long effort to teach kids to understand and be sensitive to people with disabilities.
The day started with approximately 80 students from the fourth-grade meeting Dennis Oehler, who has been living with a prosthetic leg since he got hit by two cars in 1984. Oehler spoke to the children about his accident and how he went from being three weeks away from signing a contract to play professional soccer to getting his right leg amputated below the knee.
In the hour-and-a-half long presentation, he had the kids laughing, asking questions, and reflecting on their behavior and attitudes toward people who are visibly physically disabled.
"You going to learn a lot from me today," Oehler told the group at the beginning. "But if there's only one thing that you take from this program and never forget, let it be this: you will never, ever truly be successful if you don't care about people. At your age, not all the time but sometimes, you can say things to each other and not even realize how hurtful they are."
Oehler said he enjoys speaking to kids in the 10 to 12 age range because his message is critical during a stage when they have the potential to be mean to one another.
"You guys can affect change," he said, encouraging them to be more mindful of how they treat all people, including those with disabilities.
Later in the morning, three Mamaroneck High School seniors and one junior talked to the fifth-grade about their respective learning disabilities.
Elliott Kartiner, Lindsey Manetta, Jacob Rosen, and Will Orfei discussed being bullied or teased, how their disabilities effect their schoolwork and other activities, and the ways they have actually benefited or grown from facing such obstacles.
"I study really hard, like all the time, and sometimes I still don't get the results I want, and that's really frustrating," Kartiner said. But then he went on to explain that he loves theater, and when he's on stage, he feels just like anybody else.
"Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses," Orfei said when he was advising on how to be understanding to students with learning disabilities. "This is just being kind of bad at one thing."
The Central and Murray Schools have been doing Building Bridges for five years and the Chatsworth School is about to start. During the week's programming, in addition to speakers and open conversations about compassion toward differences, each grade learns about a different type of disability through things like blindfolded trust walks, wheelchair gym classes, and decoding of scrambled complex words to learn about dyslexia.
"The key thing is to teach the kids that despite having a disability, you can achieve anything in life, you can overcome any obstacle," said Patty Wolff, one of the Building Bridges co-chairs at Central School. "And if you get to know a person like that, it’s very important to treat them with empathy and kindness."