Mentors inspire girls and women with disabilities
Amie Richards is from Massachusetts, and Reese Gieger lives in Atlanta.
They have traded a few letters, but recently, they met virtually for the first time.
Connected through the Disability EmpowHER Network’s “Letter from a Role Model” program, they both have spina bifida, a birth defect that causes a person's spine to develop abnormally.
Amie, who is 32, told 9-year-old Reese that she could ask her anything.
"It can even be a silly question,” Amie said.
“Well,” Reese replied, “what is it like to be older?”
"Well, one thing that's changed,” Amie said, “is being able to find all these other people and be friends with people with spina bifida.”
The effects of the condition can range widely, from people who don't need any kind of mobility aids to those who experience complete paralysis.
Amie walks with leg braces to help with her balance.
Reese had used braces since birth, but a year ago, her orthopedic surgeon told her to not wear them all the time.
“I can wear them sometimes, like when I go snow skiing,” she said.
Amie nodded and said she needs the extra support for water skiing.
“I tried doing it without them,” she explained, “but my legs just weren’t strong enough ‘cause those skis are heavy, right?”
Amie and Reese are one of more 70 mentor/mentee pairs who found each other through a program that was launched last December by Rochester disability rights attorney and activist Stephanie Woodward.
Woodward, who is the co-founder and executive director of the Disability EmpowHER Network, said the original idea for the letter-writing program was to find mentors for girls between the ages of 8 and 18, but it became clear that people can benefit from a mentor at any stage in life.
For example, she said women who acquired their disabilities at an older age are looking for someone who can help them with that transition.
"A woman with MS started experiencing the different symptoms that come along with the diagnosis and she just didn't know how to adjust her life from being someone who was physically able to do everything in a particular, able-bodied manner before, now having to change her daily routine,” she said.
Some of the requests are quite detailed. One mother was looking for an Asian adoptee with one arm to connect with her adopted Asian daughter who has one arm.
"And you might think that is a very specific request,” Woodward said, “but we were able to make it happen."
Both Stephanie and Amie wish they had had a mentor when they were kids.
Amie said when she was Reese's age, she wondered if she'd ever be able to get married or have kids.
"And I hope to be able to show Reese that I did get to do those things,” she said. “I had a baby last year. My son is almost 1 year old. I've traveled to a bunch of different countries and done things on my own that, as a kid, I just didn't know I would be able to."
Hearing that got Reese thinking about her future.
"I definitely really want to be a teacher someday,” she told Amie. Then, prompted by her mother to explain why she likes scanning Zillow, Reese quickly added, “Oh! I want to be a Realtor."
Girls and women with disabilities who are looking for a mentor likely won't have trouble finding one. Three hundred women have signed up as role models, and many of them are still waiting for a match.
This story was produced by WXXI’s Inclusion Desk, focusing on disabilities and inclusion.