By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally posted in The Florida Times-Union
“Being lumped under one umbrella” is how Rebecca Aleman describes the way she felt children with special needs were perceived when she was a child.
Aleman is determined for life be different for the children and young people she meets who may or may not have a disability. For the last seven years, she has worked tirelessly to help others understand the unique gifts each child brings, especially those special needs.
Because of her efforts, Aleman received this year’s United Way of Northeast Florida’s Sherwood H. Smith Award winner for advocacy.
The awards, which honor longtime United Way philanthropist Sherwood H. Smith, recognize two community individuals annually, one in service and one in advocacy. The Sherwood H. Smith Children’s Champion awards are made possible by a legacy endowment gift from his son, Sherwood H. Smith Jr. and family.
Aleman is a ministry director for the Diocese of St. Augustine, whose primary focus is Camp I Am Special, originally a weeklong summer camp sponsored by the Diocese and Catholic Charities.
In part because of her leadership — speaking at organizations around the area, running multiple fundraisers and reaching out to find buddies for the campers — the program expanded. The camp now includes fun activities for campers that allow respite weekends for parents four times a year and a weeklong camp during the winter school break.
“I started there nine years ago,”Aleman said. “I was a volunteer nurse and fell in love. I promote inclusion and reach out to teenagers in the community to be involved, introducing the typical to the disabled.”
Aleman knows first-hand how it feels to be lumped into a disability category. She faces the challenges of vertical dyslexia which, unlike the dyslexia more commonly talked about, involves lines of type becoming confused.
Corrective lenses and other procedures have helped Aleman overcome many challenges of her disability.
“My dad was in the Air Force, and we traveled a lot,” Aleman said. “I attended Department of Defense schools, and I started falling behind and was classified under special education. This was in the ’80s and ’90s when you could be treated differently — put into categories.”
She remembered sitting waiting for her parents while they met with a school official who told them she would never graduate from high school.
“It was so disappointing,” Aleman said. Instead, her parents did not accept that for an answer and encouraged Aleman to reach for her goals.
Rather than take on the hurt, too, Aleman became determined. On top of the medical procedures she underwent, she learned to develop strategies that helped her succeed.
That determination helped her finish school, start a family and develop her career serving others.
“It’s the way I was raised,” Aleman said. “Try to do your best and do for others.”
Now, she watches her campers’ determination as they kiss their parents goodbye and head off with the youth who have been matched with them for a fun week of learning.
“They see what they’re able to do,” Aleman said. “They make connections and learn life skills. It’s a huge moment for them. I’ve met some amazing people here, and we have the most amazing teenagers. The connections and friendships that develop between two people are amazing. Out there, the disability disappears.”
Aleman is encouraged now more than every because there is less stigma around disabilities.
“The scare factor is changing,” she said. “The world can be so hard, but my job feels so full of hope.”