By: usa games correspondent, mike gastineau
David Fine’s son Kenny was diagnosed with autism before his second birthday. Among the many thoughts and emotions Fine had to sort through after the diagnosis was how to explain the situation to Kenny’s cousins.
A few days later he was talking to his niece Jessie about Kenny when she interjected a point.
“Mom told me he needs help to learn how to play,” then six-year-old Jessie said to her uncle. Kenny was non-verbal so the act of showing him how to play was not necessarily going to be easy. Jessie was undaunted.
“I want to help him,” she said. “I want to show him how to play.”
And on the simple premise of helping Kenny learn how to play, a lifelong love for her cousin (as well as a passion for helping people with intellectual disabilities) started for Jessica Lynn Minard. She’s now 27 and she was nominated by Fine to be recognized by the 2018 USA Games #ImAGameChanger campaign.
“I’m her uncle, so I’m biased,” he said. “But I live in the disability community and I know when I see someone who has the gift of truly understanding and appreciating persons with disabilities, someone who has dedicated her life to supporting their growth and inclusion in their communities and someone who is never content with the status quo. Jessie is one of those remarkable people.”
Minard works as a Special Education teacher in Sylvania, Ohio. She spends time every summer working with young people with disabilities at a camp. She’s been a Special Olympics basketball coach and has implemented a program called Project UNIFY in the Sylvania School System. The program brings together students with and without disabilities for events throughout the year.
Minard incorporated Project UNIFY as a service-learning project in her government class so that her students could take ownership of the project. The program has been so successful and encouraging that she has been approached by other school districts for guidance in developing their own program.
Fine said he’s proud of his niece for all the kindness she’s shown Kenny. He’s also happy that she has chosen to spread that kindness to a much larger community and wonders if one led to the other.
“I believe the people who work with people like my son, it’s in their hearts. It’s who they are. They understand and value people with intellectual disabilities and they are always going to be good companions and supporters. Jessie is that kind of person. Would she have recognized that in herself and chosen that as a career if it weren’t for Kenny? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. I think he helped bring that out in her.”
The duo has remained as close as they can as adults. Kenny lives in Pennsylvania and Jessie lives in Ohio. She spends a week with him each year during her vacation. The beach in Delaware is Kenny’s favorite spot and last summer they went there together. Fine said their relationship is about more than just spending time together.
“Ever since they were kids they’ve had a bond. He knows that she values him. He’s always recognized that in her. We’re very fortunate in that Kenny, even though he’s non-verbal, is a very communicative guy. He’s a pretty joyful guy, too. He loves life and when he hears Jessie is coming to visit, he smiles and gets giggly.”
Fine is a lawyer, but also has a second job and as long as we’re talking about game changers it’s worth mentioning. 16 years ago, he and a group of others started The Vista School, a school for kids with autism, based in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Fine has stayed on as the school’s leader despite the fact Kenny graduated two years ago.
“It’s not the job I do for salary,” he laughed. “It’s the one I do because it’s in my heart. We believe our students have great potential and it’s our job to help them achieve it. Once you’re involved with a school like this, and you believe in the mission, you stick with it.”
He could be describing his niece with that statement. Obviously, those feelings run in the blood of this family.