Friday, February 25, 2005

FEB. 25/26/27


Man on a mission

The Idol alumnus is in
Hawaii to champion the
cause of disabled kids

Some celebrities adopt a cause or charity for the publicity value, while others support the crusade of the moment, and then move on the next one.

Clay Aiken isn't like that. He'd still be working on behalf of disabled children even if he hadn't auditioned for "American Idol," made the final round of competition, and then gone on to double-platinum sales with his debut album, "Measure of a Man."

For the children

"Voices for Change" benefit with Clay Aiken

Where: Hawaii Ballroom, Sheraton Waikiki Hotel

When: 6 p.m. Friday, starting with registration and silent auction, and 8 p.m. dinner.

Tickets: $175 and $250

Info: 521-2328 or www.voicesforchangebenefit.org

"I worked at the YMCA in Raleigh (North Carolina) for years and I was around children with disabilities. I worked with a YMCA after-school program, and through some connections there, and meeting with educators at schools that I worked with, I was asked to come work at an elementary school ... in a classroom with kids who had autism. It wasn't (directly) working at the YMCA, but being in the right place at the right time got me that opportunity," the soft-spoken Idol alumnus said when we reached him by phone recently.

While Aiken these days isn't the easiest person to reach -- having a very tight and hectic schedule -- he was the epitome of Southern-grown manners as he talked about his current work with his Bubel/Aiken Foundation (TBAF).

"The fans have been just absolutely amazing in supporting the foundation," he said. Aiken has been able thus far to juggle his commitments to TBAF with the demands of his singing career, and hopes to do a full-length concert here sometime, maybe after he finishes his next album around the end of the year.

In the meantime, Aiken will sing at least a few songs Friday night for his "Voices for Change" gala dinner/fund-raiser at the Sheraton Waikiki.

He will also be appearing as a guest speaker at the University of Hawaii Center on Disability Studies' 21st Annual Pacific Rim Conference on Disabilities at the same hotel Monday and Tuesday.


THIS WILL BE Aiken's first visit to Hawaii, but he won't be attending the conference as a celebrity. He earned a degree in special education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and founded TBAF in 2003 with Diane Bubel, a disability activist whose son, Mike, has autism. The foundation is based on an independent study project Aiken created while still in college.

Aiken found that the YMCA didn't really "allow access" for children with disabilities for a number of reasons, such as budget constraints, lack of planning, and a lack of trained staff members to work with disabled children in many of the programs. Because of that, "I ended up becoming passionate about including kids with disabilities into other extra-curricular activities with kids without disabilities, because I saw the benefits of these YMCA programs, and I knew from my education how this would benefit kids with disabilities if only they had access to them.

"It was always something I wanted to do at some point, whether I did it this way (as a celebrity) or not. I thought that, one day, I'd like to work with the YMCA and help train their employees, and help raise funds to get extra staff so that they could have kids with disabilities in their programs ... and when I started in this new path in life, I saw the opportunity to use the exposure I have now to bring attention to the cause."

Aiken says politely but firmly that he disagrees with the idea that disabled kids should be isolated from their nondisabled peers.

"Our position is that children with disabilities can survive in an atmosphere with nondisabled kids. We've been successful throughout the last two years already with camp programs for YMCA ... where children with disabilities are able to participate. In some instances, we find that the more severely disabled children require there to be more adequate training for the staff members who are working with them, or more possibly more one-on-one attention, but we do find that we have a lot a success with both the children with disabilities and their experiences in these activities with nondisabled peers, and as well as the kids without disabilities. Their lives are enhanced by these new friendships and being exposed to these diverse groups of people."


Aiken describes TBAF programs as taking "all the good that the YMCA is already doing" and adding to it with additional funding and special equipment. One pilot program operated last summer out of the Raleigh YMCA where he used to work. Another is in Kansas City, Mo. Aiken plans to expand the duration of the summer camp programs this year and add a third one out of a YMCA in Harlem in New York.

"We've found that, with the right amount of support, children with disabilities are able to learn social skills that they aren't able to learn in a classroom with other children with disabilities, and, amazingly, ... when people without disabilities are exposed to this different population, then they're not just 'the kids down the hall' or 'the kids who ride on the small school bus.' They become peers, especially when we're working with children of a younger age."

Aiken will be sharing his findings on the "benefits of inclusion" at the conference next week as part of a larger look at issues that affect people with disabilities, their families and friends, and the community as a whole.

He is also looking forward to honoring two Hawaii residents, disabilities activist Susan Rocco and state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland (D, Kalihi-Liliha), with TBAF Champion of Change Awards for their work in "the disabilities awareness arena."

"We don't do this everywhere. We pick communities with people who have really made a difference. (The senator) has done a lot of work in the legislature advocating for the disabled community in Hawaii," he says.

AS FOR any comments about "American Idol," Aiken clearly prefers to talk about his charity work instead.

"I haven't paid attention to it too much," he says with a hearty laugh. "My position was, that soon as I was gone, it wasn't any good anymore." (It was a joke, AI fans, just a joke.)

Turning back to his foundation, he said "The career is able to help the foundation do its work and the foundation is, in turn, able to make a difference in the community. So often we're introduced as a foundation for people with disabilities, but it's not like that to me. We do focus on the needs of people with disabilities ... but it's a foundation for everybody.

"I think the more we talk about how much it's for children with disabilities, the more we negate that there's so much work and so much benefit for children without disabilities when the work is done. Our mission statement is to allow everybody to enjoy the life experiences we all enjoy on a regular basis. It's a mission that benefits everyone."

And the biggest challenge in getting there?

"To change the way that everyone thinks about people with disabilities. To change the mind set that they need to be in a special classroom ... it's been very segregationist almost. That's the biggest thing for me. People opening their minds and their eyes to the possibilities of assimilation. When people ask how they can help, you have start with yourself."

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