ACPS Advocates Honored by Alexandria Commission for Women

Hammond parent advocates Yolanda Carrasco and Mildred Rivera received the Making a Difference Award at the 2017 Salute to Women Awards Celebration held by the Alexandria Commission for Women.

The pair was recognized for their advocacy and leadership roles at John Adams Elementary School and Francis C. Hammond Middle School, where they have been raising awareness about disabilities and encouraging the acceptance of students disabilities.

Rivera is the mother of twin boys with Autism; Carrasco is the mother of a son with Autism. Together they have spent the past eight years speaking in classrooms and at assemblies, developing educational and advocacy resources, and supporting fellow parents of children with disabilities.

I noticed Yolie dropping off and picking up her daughter, who was in the same pre-kindergarten class as my twins. Her daughter was a peer role model for the kids with disabilities. I thanked her for having such an open mind. We went for coffee and I later found out that her eldest son had Autism. The rest is history,” said Rivera.

The two volunteered extensively at John Adams from the time their children were in pre-kindergarten, so they were very familiar to children and staff at the school. Eight years ago, a former assistant principal asked Rivera if she would like to speak to students at John Adams about her boys.

We started out borrowing materials from the special education staff and went from classroom to classroom giving open and honest age-appropriate talks to the students. It started out with just Yolie and me. Some mom friends with their own children with various disabilities helped us hold up posters and props. The same mom friends eventually started talking about their own children. Over time, we had wonderful and generous guest speakers who gave of their time to talk about how they live with their disabilities. We partnered with the National Federation for the Blind, Heeling House (dog therapy), Project Horse (equine therapy), our brave U.S. veterans and just plain old individuals willing to share their stories,” said Rivera.

At Hammond they offer age-appropriate talks at grade-level assemblies that incorporate bullying prevention strategies. The two also maintain display cases containing information and resources that may be used by those with disabilities. For the past nine years, Rivera has maintained an informational wall that includes notifications about seminars, workshops and trainings; research studies; support groups for both parents and students; fundraisers; sensory friendly films, theatre and museum experiences; adapted sports and recreation activities and more. Each grade-level hallway dons a disability/Autism awareness banner.

Students have advocated for themselves during our assemblies. They have openly mentioned their disability in front of their peers. Those who were not comfortable sharing their disability with their peers actually came up to either Yolie or myself to share their disability with us and to thank us for letting them know that they were not alone and just different, but not less,” said Rivera.

The two have partnered extensively with the schools and community organizations, including the Autism Society of Northern Virginia to raise awareness of disability issues. Through their open and honest dialogue with students and parents about their children, they have created a space in which other parents feel safe talking about their children’s issues.

Nothing was off limits because we wanted to debunk all the myths and misconceptions that were out there. During our last two years at John Adams and at Hammond, general education students have actually advocated for themselves—standing up amongst their peers and telling them they have a disability and sharing their experiences. That’s what we want our kids to eventually do, but until then we are their voices,” said Rivera.

The Salute to Women Making a Difference Award honors women who serve as change agents in their community or as role models for other women, as Carrasco and Rivera so clearly do.

They plan to expand their program to spread awareness and acceptance of differently-abled students to high school and to first responders. The pair also wants to help other parents work in conjunction with their children’s schools and communities.

ACPS, Awards, Hammond, John Adams