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Graciela Sharif’s mission is to empower parents


Graciela Sharif’s mission is to empower parents

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

When Graciela and Ayman Sharif’s son Nidal was born with Down Syndrome the couple didn’t know how to respond to having a special needs child.

Graciela, a native of Peru, now recognizes she and Ayman went through a cycle of guilt, sadness, anger and, she says, “the loss of dreams.” Little did she know it was the start of her journey as a special needs advocate. Today, as outreach coordinator for Parent Training and Information (PTI) Nebraska, she helps lost parents find their way.

“At first you feel like you’re navigating a foreign land in a foreign language,” she says.

She recalls the first time she and Ayman met with a caseworker they were so hungry for answers and hope they half-way expected a cure.

“This is how desperate parents are for information,” says Sharif. “But she guided us to resources, and from that point I realized we’re going to have to learn this new language. We kept reading books and navigating the Internet and asking questions and visiting other parents.”

While still a stay-at-home-mom she helped create a support group for parents of Down Syndrome children.

“Sharing experiences is the best way to overcome many of our obstacles and to feel better,” says Sharif.

She further educated herself at a PTI workshop. Armed with special needs protection laws, she forced a school district to accept her son at his neighborhood school.

While she and Ayman, a Middle Eastern native, are fluent in English — they met as international students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha — she says parents with minimal English language skills face more obstacles.

“This is why I joined the PTI staff,” she says. “They needed somebody bilngual — who spoke Spanish and English, and who was the parent of a child with a disability and had a college degree. I filled all three requirements.”

She likes the fact PTI services are free.

Additionally, she serves on the Nebraska Advocacy Services board and the Munroe Meyer Institute’s Consumer Advisory board. In her various roles, she says, “I always try to speak on behalf of the Spanish-speaking families. I am their voice.”

Her work earned her the 2010 Heartland Latino Leadership Conference Heath and Human Services award.

“It was an honor,” she says of the recognition. “It told me I’m doing a good job and to keep up the good work. I know the importance of supporting my community.”

She says a cultural stigma makes some Hispanics reluctant to reveal they have a special needs child or reticent to talk about the situation. Her job is identifying families and empowering them to get the help or take the action they need.

“The families and I really connect,” she says. “They trust me. Sometimes they just need to talk. It’s listening to them and crying with them. I know what they’re going through. I always tell parents, ‘We are the teachers. You need to talk about your child’s disability, you need to be involved. You have to get your kid in as many regular education classes as possible — the other kids need to learn from them. It’s for their future.’”

Sharif trained to be an architect, but she’s found a new calling with PTI.

“I love what I do. It enriches me. This is my project in life.”

Once Nidal and his brother Nader complete school, she might pursue a social work degree.

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