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Story hour gives positive message about disabilities

Rep. Dave Baker, left, reads “It’s Okay to Ask!” to a large group Friday morning at the Willmar Public Library. Each child received a free copy of the book commissioned by Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare. The book takes on questions that children with disabilities often hear from their peers and how they can respond. (TRIBUNE/Rand Middleton) 2 / 2

WILLMAR — A crowd of children filled the kids’ reading corner Friday morning at the Willmar Public Library, listening to Rep. Dave Baker read aloud to them.

The book, “It’s Okay To Ask,” contained colorful illustrations of children with walkers and leg braces, enjoying childhood activities and eager to make new friends.

His audience followed along as Baker turned the pages. They chimed in with comments and questions of their own.

It was a typical children’s story hour but one with a lesson.

With pictures, story and a gentle yet positive message, “It’s Okay To Ask” takes on a sensitive issue: the questions that children with disabilities often hear from their peers and how they can respond.

It’s part of an ongoing effort by Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare to change the public dialogue into one that’s inclusive of children with disabilities and embraces their uniqueness. The book was commissioned last year to address what was seen as a void in children’s literature.

“There’s just nothing out there for children with disabilities,” said Dr. Scott Schwantes, associate medical director of pediatrics at Gillette.

As one of Minnesota’s leading centers in diagnosing and treating children with disabilities and complex medical conditions, this is a population the Gillette staff knows well. Gillette serves 25,000 children annually from every county in Minnesota and also operates 18 outreach sites across the state, including a full-time clinic in Willmar.

Children start noticing at an early age when someone is different — maybe a classmate who uses a tablet to communicate or a next-door neighbor who wears leg braces or uses a wheelchair, Schwantes said.

Moving past the outward differences and finding what they share in common is one of the keys to forming a positive environment for children growing up with disabilities or complex medical conditions, he said. “The focus is to see beyond that disability and find common ground. The commonalities are way more important.”

Gillette worked with noted children’s artist Nancy Carlson and their own staff experts to create a book that’s accurate and that helps children start the conversation about disabilities and friendship.

Colorful illustrations show Maya twirling in her wheelchair, Ahmed using his tablet to tell jokes and Carter inviting another boy to ride their bikes together.

“It helps kids in a great kid-friendly way to show that they aren’t defined by their disabilities,” said Cate Pardo, of Gillette’s public relations office. “Ultimately they want to be treated like any other kid.”

One of the goals is to help children start the conversation and feel comfortable asking and answering questions, Schwantes said. “Our hope is that this is a tool that will help children learn that it’s OK to ask. … This is OK to talk about. We can just put it out there. It really does help dispel some of those anxieties and fears.”

Gillette provided 1,800 free copies of the book this spring to every public library and school library in Minnesota. Within the first couple of months after “It’s Okay To Ask” was published, another 400 were sold directly, including internationally.

Several readings of the book have already been held in St. Paul. The story hour Friday in Willmar marked the beginning of an effort by Gillette to introduce the book statewide this summer.

“We just want to spread the message about acceptance and inclusion of kids,” Pardo said.

Pardo and Kristi Nelson, also of the Gillette public relations staff, were crossing their fingers for good attendance at the story hour but didn’t quite expect almost 80 children and adults to show up. The audience included a dozen youngsters from the special education class at Kennedy Elementary in Willmar.

“We anticipated about 20 kids and we got way more. I think it speaks to how the book resonates,” said Pardo.

Afterwards, several parents approached them to ask for copies of the book.

“Some parents said they wish they’d had the book as kids,” said Nelson.

Baker, a first-term legislator who recently went through the bruising finale of the 2015 session, confessed to being nervous in front of his kid-sized audience. But the experience was “fun,” he said. “I had a great time. I think it was just seeing the sparkle in their eyes. It brings you closer to the kids.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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