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Del Mar Group Gives Roll Models To Kids In Wheelchairs

— Life can be mighty challenging for kids who live in a wheelchair. The typical childhood struggles are that much tougher, and finding adults who understand what they’re going through isn’t easy.

A Del Mar-based non-profit has launched a program called Roll Models that pairs these kids with a disabled adult mentor. It’s all about getting kids to see that life in a wheelchair is full of possibilities.

Aired 9/12/12 on KPBS News.

Kids need someone to help them get through life, especially if they live in a wheelchair. A Del Mar-based non-profit has launched a program that pairs kids i wheel chairs with a disabled adult mentor.

It's a special day for 10-year-old Jerlena Bailey and her mom Trelena Thomas.

"So, don’t scream," Thomas told her daughter. "So today, we’re gonna spend the whole day at SeaWorld and with your role model. You’re just gonna follow her around, you guys are gonna get to talk, and spend time together. I think that’s pretty awesome. So it will be just me, you and your role model. That cool? Okay, now you can scream."

"EEEEEH!"

For Bailey, going from room to room in her small apartment is a struggle, let alone getting ready to leave for the day.

Her apartment is not wheelchair friendly, and she can barely squeeze in through the door frames.

When Bailey was four years old, she was hit by a car as she was crossing the street. She lost her eyesight and hearing on her left side, her ability to walk and control of her bladder. You might say she lost her independence.

Bailey tries to stay positive.

"Need some oil, need some new rims, or some tin foil," Bailey said as she tried to get her bulky chair out of her room.

"We probably just need a whole new wheelchair, huh?" responded her mom.

Bailey and Thomas finally make their way outside.

Bailey said she’s looking forward to meeting her mentor.

"I’m looking for her to understand where I’m coming from," Bailey explained. "I’m looking for that she knows how she feels, and she knows that it’s uncomfortable for people just to look at me. I cry, ‘cause I’m like, why do people look at me? Have you ever seen somebody in a wheelchair before? Like, how is that hard to understand? And maybe she’ll get it."

At SeaWorld, the Roll Models program gets underway as seven kids and their mentors get acquainted.

Roll Models is operated by the non-profit group HeadNorth. Executive director Michele Bart said the program is designed to give kids with disabilities someone who can help them navigate through life.

"There’s questions that come along the way about how they’re gonna relate to their peers, in certain situations, in sports, and in school, and things like that. They need somebody to talk to that about, you know. They want somebody else who’s been in that situation to just share their wisdom with," Bart said.

Bailey’s mentor is 32-year-old Jennifer McCallson. She broke her neck 12 years ago in a cheerleading accident. McCallson admits since then, she’s had her ups and downs. But she said she’s also learned that attitude is everything.

"We create our own destiny, you know, and I think it starts in your mind," McCallson said. "You know the saying you are what you eat? I think you are what you think. And no one can tell me what I can and can’t do, only myself."

McCallson and Bailey head off to explore the theme park. There are a couple of planned activities.

"Then you and I can do whatever we want," McCallson explained to Bailey. "Then we’re gonna rule the school, sister."

"And I’m gonna be like, I’m in a wheelchair," Bailey responded.

"And then we can go bowling for people, how about that?" McCallson asked laughing.

"Yeah," Bailey said, "I think we’ll get a camera and just roll it at people. How about that?"

The pair make their way to the Shamu show. Bailey has a little trouble on the final stretch.

"Go hard left, hard left," McCallson. "There you go. There you go, you got it, hard left. More on the left. You got that. No, you got it, we’re almost there, you got it! You almost got it."

Bailey and McCallson eventually grab some spots and enjoy the show.

As Bailey and her mentor enjoy each other’s company, Trelena Thomas steps back and takes a deep breath.

"For a mom, it’s very difficult to see your own child struggle," Thomas explained. "And to see someone come in, that has the same disability and that can push her to go beyond. I don’t know if you caught her going down the hill. That was her first time doing it all by herself without my help. Oh, it made me feel so good. Like, oh my gosh, so good, that I don’t have to be there every step. Someone else can show her that, you know, they can do it so she can do it, you know?”

Head North plans to expand the Roll Models program to more children in the near future.

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