Dutchess County executive brings message of social acceptance to Niagara
LEWISTON – Marc Molinaro, county executive of Dutchess County, came to Niagara University on Friday with an initiative that concerns not only his constituents but members of the community statewide.
It’s called "Think Differently" and it attempts to break down the barriers for those living on the autistic spectrum as well as those who have other developmental or intellectual disabilities.
Molinaro began his presentation by saying that he was a parent, not an expert, offering a personal story about a day he came home to find his daughter, who has a seizure disorder, crying because she couldn’t tie her shoes. His immediate reaction was to tie them for her.
“Out of the rafters, came my wife. She swooped at me, she said ‘we have to think differently about the way we teach her. If you do it for her, she’ll never do it herself,’ and she was right, but I wanted to tie her shoe.” Molinaro admitted.
The goal of Think Differently is to not only eliminate prejudice people like Molinaro’s daughter but also to support them in becoming more inclusive with those who have special needs. With this goal in mind, Molinaro has been bringing the Think Differently message to communities statewide and invites people to take part in the cause.
Some of the changes made in Dutchess County could be easily duplicated in other communities, he said, noting that the program has made life easier for those trying to navigate the system. Think Differently is involved in hosting picnics for children with special needs and their families and bringing local agencies and providers to the picnic so they can interact with the parents.
In 2016, Molinaro appointed a Dutchess County’s deputy commissioner for special needs to help individuals living with disability and their families. The position provides families with an advocate who will show them what agencies to call and help them navigate any necessary paperwork. Often, Molinaro said, “It’s not only that the right hand doesn’t know what the left one is doing, it doesn’t know it exists.”
Think Differently has not just made strides in governmental circles, they’ve also reached out to businesses for jobs .
“Major warehouses, they say we have jobs we need to fill and you have the people,” Molinaro said.
Today, Molinaro said the same companies have multiple shifts so people can work less hours, the business can employ more people, and the buses are timed to pick up and drop off on those shift changes.
Molinaro explained that by talking to the officials, the mayors, the local government and the local community leaders, the results of spreading the message will induce change. He believes Think Differently efforts will help educate community leaders.
“And they become our best backers,” Molinaro said.
New York State Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, also sat at the dais and responded to a question.
“The more local, the better,” Ortt said. “The state is so huge and diverse ... county down works better.”
State Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, agreed.
“The real wins will be on a local level – raising awareness, marketing campaign, local governments, local businesses.”
New York State Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, said that Molinaro opened his eyes to the need for more awareness a year ago and that “we all need to do our part” and “talk to our neighbors” about the issue.
According to Molinaro, Think Differently is just the beginning for change, but he believes it’s also a strong beginning.
“It doesn’t mean we all agree. It just means we’re under one banner. We’re speaking the same language,” Molinaro said.