October 11, 2004
By SUSAN KANIA, Special To The Courant
Back in 1999, when Beresford Wilson was having difficulty finding support and services for his autistic daughter, he joined a focus group for parents of children with disabilities. He never left.
Wilson, of Hartford, stayed on to become the "lead parent" working
with social worker Merva Jackson to create AFCAMP, the African Caribbean
American Parents of Children with Disabilities. The nonprofit group
provides peer support, training and advocacy for parents raising
children with physical, mental, developmental, emotional or other
disabilities. The office is located in Hartford, but the group works
throughout Greater Hartford and the state.
"AFCAMP helped me access the information I needed about dealing with autism and navigating through the special education system," Wilson said. "I
went through a lot of anguish and hard work before I achieved any success ...
but AFCAMP helped me understand that as her parent, I am my daughter's best advocate."
On Friday, Wilson will be among the parents, leaders and friends of AFCAMP who will gather at the Hartford Club to celebrate the group's fifth anniversary. The evening will include dinner, music, dancing and many inspirational stories.
Jackson, the executive director of AFCAMP, said some of the group's major accomplishments have been providing training and advocacy for more than 500 families. The group has also proposed reviving a juvenile review board to help troubled Hartford students before their behavior leads to serious crimes. AFCAMP is planning a summit with the Hartford Board of Education to discuss ways to improve special education for the 4,000 children receiving such help in city schools.
"AFCAMP can't do it alone," said Jackson. "We wouldn't have been able to come
as far as we have without our relationships with other organizations."
In addition to school systems, the group also helps parents communicate with state child welfare and juvenile justice agencies.
Financial support comes from city, state and federal funding and the Tow Foundation, the Connecticut Health Foundation and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
Wilson said he has testified at public hearings on behalf of children with disabilities at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford and before the Hartford city council and board of education. He attends many Planning and Placement Team meetings in Hartford schools to support parents with a disabled child, and he provides training and assistance to new parent advocacy groups.
"I want to share my experiences and try to represent a voice that is seldom heard," Wilson said. "When
I see the number of families coming to the table and getting involved in their
children's lives, it's rewarding."
Ruby Dempson, of Hartford, said AFCAMP helped her find services for her 18-month-old granddaughter who was born with a birth defect and an older granddaughter, who has a different disability.
"I support AFCAMP's issues and go to their meetings," said Dempson. "I think
they're doing a great job, but they need more [staff] and funds because there
are so many people out there who need their help."
Jackson said the group was created to meet the special difficulties faced by families of color raising children with a disability. She said they often lack information about their child's specific disability, the services available to them and their rights.
"We've grown beyond the urban community because we recognize that the same problems affect all children," Jackson said. "Black,
white, Latino or Asian, we're all in this together to help children with disabilities."
James McGaughey, executive director of the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, the parent agency of AFCAMP, praised the group's work over the past five years.
"They've tapped into a great river of need that's overwhelming all of us," McGaughey said. "A
lot of articulate spokespeople have emerged through this organization, who have
learned about children's rights and how to access the system. They are influencing
the community to recognize disability rights as part of the larger civil rights
movement, the larger movement for fairness and justice."
AFCAMP's fifth anniversary celebration will be Friday, October 15, 2004, from 6 to 11 p.m. at the Hartford Club, 46 Prospect St., Hartford. For information about the organization or for advance tickets, at $25 a person, call 860-297-4358. Tickets will also be available at the door.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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