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Personal Experience of the Youth Leadership Forum

ONE WEEK, TWO VIEWS

By Caroline and Carina Elgin

Caroline, a 16 year old junior at Kettle Run High School in Nokesville, VA. with cerebral palsy:

Last summer I got to go to the Youth Leadership Forum. My mother heard about it and we applied. I had to interview with IEC, and I was shy, but they were nice to me.

I was excited when I got accepted. I thought it would be fun to be with other teenagers with disabilities. There aren't really any people in Fauquier County with issues like mine. Its hard to make new friends.

The day we drove there, I was still excited, but when my mom and sister left, I did feel sad. They were going all the way to Sweden! But I had my service dog, Sajen, with me, and the people at YLF were really fun. My favorite part was meeting the other participants and the staff. I really liked the dance, even though my power wheelchair had broken down! I enjoyed the trip to the Capitol in Richmond. I learned a lot about being an advocate. The experience made me even more eager to go to college. I liked the dorm and the campus.

I really encourage other teens from our area to apply. You meet great people and you learn a lot.

Carina, Caroline's mom:

Caroline and I talked a lot about the program before she applied. It sounded like a fantastic opportunity, but I wanted to be sure she was ready. She is quiet and shy, partially because of her speech impediment, and she had never been away from home without me. She has never even been invited to a sleep over with friends. She kept telling me she was excited, not nervous, even up until we pulled up at the dorm, but I was so scared I wanted to throw up! Could I really leave my girl at this place? She needs help... dressing, pottying, showering...would they really do it right? As we pulled up, we saw lots of people cheering and waving at us...some people in power chairs, like Caroline. I teared up as I realized even more that this would be such a great opportunity for her to meet other people facing similar obstacles. One counselor was particularly enthusiastic, and told me he had been through the program and was now a junior in college. Just the kind of people Caroline needed to meet...

Inside the building, there were more smiling faces, and a sea of different colored t-shirts for staff and participants. Having gotten a little "confused" on campus, we were running late, and Caroline had to be whisked away to her first activity. I gave her a quick kiss and said "I am so proud of you". We both burst into tears. I had to drag myself away. All the way home I wondered if she was really ready for this experience. Making it worse was that it had seemed like a good time for me to get a break and go visit my brother in Sweden! An ocean away! Dad was still home, a couple of hours from Christopher Newport, but...

ell, we both survived, and both learned a lot. She may still be quiet, but she really benefited from the program in many ways. Caroline learned she could get over a little homesickness. She learned that others could manage her daily living needs. She met people with different disabilities, and some with similar challenges, and had a great time. She heard speakers on different topics to help her be a better advocate for herself and for others. She presented a paper in the Capitol! She stays in touch with others through Facebook. She found a supportive community to lean on and learn from. Most importantly, I think it gave her a taste that she could move on beyond her comfort zone, into the future, towards her goals. She has really taken her studies seriously and is doing really well in school, with the goal of graduating on time, with a standard diploma, and going to college. Even her physical independence improved after being away from home (and mom) for the first time.

For me, as the mom of a child with a disability, it was a strange feeling letting go. Many of us feel we are the only ones that can "do it right". But we won't always be there. Caroline's experience with YLF helped tell me she will be all right. In fact, she's going to do great.