Friday, October 11, 2013

Too Close To Home | #FindAvonte

It's officially a week since 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo has been missing. Last step as I stepped off the 6 train in The Bronx, I paused on the platform to listen to the announcement - it was a message about Avonte. I pulled Norrin's (I usually refer to him as 'The Boy') hoody over his head, the wind was picking up.

Every night this week, I've wondered if Avonte's cold, hungry, tired and missing his mother. Every night this week, I've held Norrin's hand a little bit tighter. This story hits too close to home for me. And my emotions are all over the place.  

Avonte could easily be Norrin in a few years and it's scary to see how easily a kid could fall through the cracks of a broken system. 

Like Norrin, Avonte was in a 6:1:1 classroom in a Queens public school (District 75). Avonte walked out of his room, down two flights of stairs and passed a security guard. The guard asked Avonte where he was going, when he didn't answer (because Avonte is non-verbal), the guard assumed he was "one of the regular kids." The school took an hour before notifying Avonte's mother, Vanessa Fontaine. 

The school was absolutely negligent and it's a disgrace. How are special needs parents supposed to have faith in the public school system? For me, it's just another glaring example of how the public school system is ill equipped to work with individuals with special needs. Something NEEDS to be done.   

I think of Norrin's kindergarten year and how hard I fought to get him out of that public school and away from District 75. And while I love Norrin's current school, still I wonder. Avonte reminds me of how vulnerable we really are. There are so many people I have to rely on - teachers, bus drivers, matrons, baby sitters. Will they be able to keep Norrin safe? 

Yesterday morning, I saw Avonte's mother on television and I cried. I could see the pain in her eyes and feel her heart ache. When you have a child with special needs, wandering is your worst nightmare - especially in a city like New York. 
"[Avonte] is supposed to have one-to-one supervision at all times," Fontaine [Avonte's mother] said through tears. "He has the mental capacity of a 7- or 8-year-old." (CNN)
I don't know Avonte or any member of his family. But I grew up in Queens, I have a special needs sister who went to school in Long Island City. I have a son with autism. This is too close to home for me and I am praying for Avonte's safe return to his family.  

And I want to do everything within my power to help. 

Whenever a white child with autism goes missing, my social media feeds are saturated with posts and tweets. Blog posts are written and shared, hashtags used. There is this sense of urgency. I haven't seen that with Avonte Oquedo. When a brown kid with autism goes missing, the sense of urgency doesn't seem as great.

Autism is a spectrum and it comes in every color. All of our kids matter. Avonte could be any of our kids. And I wish that more were being done in the media.  

New Yorkers often get a bad rap for being rude and apathetic but in these moments - we all really come together as a community. That's what I've seen this week. And that makes me so proud of my city. It gives me HOPE. Hope is all we have right now. 

Tonight (Friday, 10/11) at 5pm there will be a vigil in Queens for Avonte Oquendo at the tent next to Center Boulevard School in Long Island City.   

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AutismWonderland - written by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez - is a personal blog chronicling a NYC family's journey with autism, while also sharing local resources for children/families with special needs.