Graduate of advocacy program raises awareness, helps daughter with autism

by Sean Cote

Staff Intern

Jennifer Reiter of Maple Grove graduated from Partners in Policymaking in May, an educational program designed to help parents with children who have developmental disabilities and adults with disabilities themselves to better support loved ones and live life.

Maple Grove resident Jennifer Reiter, right, stands with her family on her graduation day from Partners in Policymaking.

Maple Grove resident Jennifer Reiter, right, stands with her family on her graduation day from Partners in Policymaking.

Partners in Policymaking was founded in 1987 by the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities as a method to address the lack of education about autism and other similar disabilities. The deadline for applying to attend the program is July 15.

When Reiter and her husband, Todd, had Olivia, she “felt blindsided.” The diagnosis “opened a door so we could help Olivia navigate the world in a way that helped her.”

She kept asking questions of herself, questions like “why can’t we do things differently in the classroom, what more can we do to educate ourselves and other families facing these changes, and how can I help make a difference for Olivia and other classmates?”

A school administrator Reiter worked closely with told her about the program and encouraged her to apply, and Reiter felt it would be a great way to gain some of the knowledge she was looking for.

Maple Grove resident Jennifer Reiter receives her certificate from the Partners in Policymaking program. This program is designed to help parents with children to have development disabilities.

Maple Grove resident Jennifer Reiter receives her certificate from the Partners in Policymaking program. This program is designed to help parents with children to have development disabilities.

Reiter attended the program from September 2012 to May 2013, meeting one weekend a month for a Friday/Saturday session. She started with the history of disabilities, which she said is such a strong, vital foundation for a program whose focus is disabilities. From then on, she felt that some of the challenges her family faced made sense because they had been rooted in how society viewed people with disabilities from day one.

Other subjects covered inclusive education, creativity, civil discourse, supported living and employment, and community organizing. Reiter learned how government worked at all levels, from the local school board to the federal government, and met local, state, and federal representatives.

The program’s staff included Colleen Wieck, Carol Shoeneck, Claire Buchwald and Mary Jo Nichols, in addition to many guest lecturers, including the honorable Donovan Frank, a federal judge.

Reiter stated that the program provided her with the tools to show the world that her daughter and others like her are not less, that they are unique, talented, curious, smart, creative, but just need a bit more support in unlocking and sharing their gifts.

She says she uses her education all the time, engaging in conversations with school administrators and government representatives and devoting her time to advocacy projects, including a film festival coming to the Twin Cities later this year. Reiter’s education has allowed her to form a uniquely strong relationship with Olivia’s educators in order to foster success in the classroom, and she says her family has an incredible network of friends, mentors, and supporters to help her family along this journey.

“It has completely changed my family’s life for the better…it can be a lot to juggle for a year, but the benefits, knowledge, and friendships forged improved our lives so much,” she said.

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