Zach Garafalo is being honored as a Champion of Change for embodying the next generation of leadership within the disability community and his commitment to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
My personal story could have had a very different outcome. I was adopted at four months. From the outset, I displayed all the behaviors consistent with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Think a bicycle missing its brakes. My bicycle also did not have any wheels, any steering or any chain. I was literally bumping around out of control in every direction. In Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, I was Mr. Toad. When I was two and a half years old, I was formally diagnosed with ADHD.
My parents’ connection to the broader adoption community of support enabled them to learn about and access an array of services to assist in my pro-social development. Over many years, my parents wove together various interventions, summer camp, social skills groups, counseling, sports that helped me develop the insight and ability to compensate for and manage my excess energy. The unifying theme for my parents, and eventually me, was connecting with others to learn what resources existed.
I have always had positive adult role models. Role models do not need to be educated parents or helping professionals. Connectedness and inspiration can come from unconventional places and be equally transformative. Teachers, community leaders, custodians, coaches and others devoted time to help nurture my passion for civic involvement and volunteerism. Caring adults took the time to mentor and help shape my leadership capacities. I served as Student Representative to the Natick School Committee, Chairperson of the Youth Advisory Board and youngest elected Town Meeting Member in Natick’s history. My deficits never defined me. I write this not to boast, but to inspire hope and to personally illustrate that people with disabilities do not have to be defined by their challenges.
I attended Southern Vermont College in Bennington, the kickoff site for the President’s 2020 College Completion Initiative. My college experience helped prepare me for a smooth transition into a great career and graduate studies. The Success Center allowed me to understand my strengths and areas for growth as a learner and equipped me with skills to compensate. What is remarkable about SVC is the community ethos that charges its students to think critically and challenge the status quo. Today I am challenging the status quo.
My personal story informs my work. This is why I get up every day and fight for the rights of all young people. My own lived experience – supported by research – has clearly documented that young people and families who are connected to their communities have better long term outcomes. We need to invest in children and families and work toward building a unified system where young people and those who care for them have knowledge of and access to services that form a cohesive whole as opposed to a fragmented hole. Empowering those who care for young people to navigate complex and multiple overlapping systems is vital.
Zach Garafalo is the Assistant Director of YOUTH POWER!