Disabilities topic of youth leadership forum
South Lake Tahoe resident Erin O’Connor doesn’t let dyslexia stop her from achieving her goals.
O’Connor, 16, was one of 65 California high school students who attended the 10th annual Youth Leadership Forum for students with disabilities.
The event was July 29 through August 2 at California State University, Sacramento.
“I discovered when I got there that there were a lot of people just like me,” she said. “There was always this sense of being accepted. Sometimes it’s hard to tell people you have a learning disability because they look at you differently. When I told one of my really good friends about (the forum), she was like, ‘Why are you going there? Are you retarded?’ That really hurt.”
Forum attendees were selected by the Governor’s Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons, based on their demonstration of community leadership, personal achievements and unique experiences.
“It made me feel honored because I know of four of my friends who applied and I was the only one who got it,” said O’Connor, who submitted an essay, application and letters of recommendation to the committee. She also participated in phone interviews before being selected.
An honor roll student and active member of the South Shore community, O’Connor said she became interested in the forum after speaking with one of her teachers.
According to the state of California employment development department, the primary purpose of the forum is to motivate students to continue their successes by learning from adults with disabilities who excel in their personal and professional lives.
During the five-day conference, student delegates participated in leadership development programs, small group workshops and social activities.
O’Connor, who hopes to be a counselor at next year’s forum, said she felt inspired by speakers who shared their stories at the event.
“It really was (inspiring) because you know if they can make it, obviously anyone else can,” she said. “Out of all the people I meet, some of the smartest people have disabilities.”
California created the concept of the Youth Leadership Forum 10 years ago. Since it’s inception, 33 states and Puerto Rico have established organizations.
School, at times, was not easy but O’Connor credits a supportive family and teachers like Ms. Thurman and Ms. Triano for helping build her confidence.
The forum also was a major confidence booster for O’Connor, who said she got a lot out of the week.
“I learned to be more accepting toward others,” she said. “Before I went, I didn’t always accept other people’s differences but I learned so much. I learned to treat people with respect.”
She also made some new friends.
“The neatest person I met?” she asked. “It’s hard to pinpoint it. Everyone there was so interesting. I made connections I will have for life.”
O’Connor, who will be a senior next year at South Tahoe High School, plans to attend a four year university to study marine biology or culinary arts.
“I think more than anything else, Erin’s work ethic has made her this successful,” said Erin’s mother, Janice O’Connor.
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