As a child I didn’t have an organization or program that told me it was okay to be disabled. That I was still strong. That I was capable of achieving anything I wanted. I had to learn that on my own with a lot of heartbreak.
I was born with a severe and rare version of scoliosis that didn’t really develop until I was about 7 years old. I was a fun energetic kid! As I grew, my disability got worse, I became weak and less active. I had a series of surgery and treatments and my childhood was flipped and I matured rather quickly. Fortunately, I had a loving and hard-working mother who was supportive and wanted me to know that I was no different than anyone else, but at the time I felt that a mother had to say those things, so I did not really give her credit. I didn’t feel that I was like anyone else anymore. I went from a playful child that ran around with her friends, to being in a wheelchair unable to move or walk. I knew I was different and at the time I didn’t like it!
I was homeschooled for a year during my third grade which was when I had my first major surgery and when I returned to school my friends didn’t treat me the same. People were at first walking on eggshells with me, and eventually that turned into a lot of bullying and misunderstanding that left me feeling less than my peers. I had to learn to overcome these struggles alone because there really weren’t any programs that dealt with disabled students and helped us feel included in day-to-day activities. Disabled youth didn’t have the luxury of having an organization specifically for them that build their confidence and empowered them academically as well as emotionally.
I had so many unhealthy experiences that I had to go through in school and outside of school that really shaped who I am today. One of the big turning points for me was when I was told that college was going to be so difficult and I should forget about applying as my disability would not allow me to succeed, nor achieve a degree. At this point in my life I had a problem with authority and when my high school counselor said those words to me my first reaction was to cry, and my second reaction was to apply to college because how dare she underestimate my value and motivation to succeed. Of course, I didn’t listen to her. I went to college and I have two degrees and I now work hard as a professional and as an advocate for people in my community.
About three years ago I was looking for jobs and nothing was happening - no calls, no interviews, nothing! I had the worse luck! All those negative thoughts that I had as a child creeped back up and I kept questioning myself. Am I worth it? Am I capable? Is this disability keeping me from succeeding?! However, one day I realized that these thoughts were not okay. I think about it now and I feel ashamed that I was doubting myself. I was worth it then and worth it now. I am capable and my disability is an asset. I tell myself this every day and it is still something I am working on believing. When I came to this realization a bigger picture came to mind. I had to do something that will teach people that disability is not a liability. I wanted to target the youth and let them know that no matter their condition they are an asset! That was how I first thought about the development of CaneiWalk.
Is there anything in RI that will help disabled youth? NO! Since I was a child, to my surprise, nothing had changed and these programs still weren’t available. Sure, we had TRIO program (I participated on those as well) but they don’t focus so much on specific needs of certain students, particularly disabled students. So, I decided to be the change agent!
CaneiWalk has been a project that I have been working on for about three years. What helped me take the lead was New Leaders Council RI, giving me tools that I would need to bring the project to life. This past month, we finally became a 501c3 a nonprofit organization that works to empower and amplify the voices of youth with disabilities to reach their full potential by providing innovative mentoring, youth leadership development and social justice/civic and community engagement programs. We want to motivate our disabled youth to reach their personal, educational and professional goals while guiding our public and private sectors to be more inclusive.
It certainly has not been an easy task, especially being the only organization of its kind in Rhode Island. Fundraising, and getting community members excited has been challenging. However, having persisted my entire life to succeed for my family and myself, now I will do it for our disabled youth, because they deserve a better future!
Feel free to check out our website, www.caneiwalk.org! your support is imperative for our success!
Stephanie Olarte is the Rhode Island State Program Coordinator for The Hispanic Federation and the founder of CaneiWalk. She is a Latina and disability advocate, and is passionate about seeing more women of color elected to office.