Hopping and hoping for a cure

Preschoolers learn about disabilities, helping others through MDA fund-raiser

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Peyton Nagel, 4, hopped in the air 100 times for those who can't hop on their own. So did Lowen Epstein, Shay Adamo, Sam Frackowiak and a group of other North Routt Preschool students.

Spread out on an area rug in the historic Moonhill Schoolhouse last week, students at the small Clark-area preschool culminated a two-week unit on disabilities by hopping up and down to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

"I think it's just the beginning of helping them become aware of people with disabilities," preschool teacher Pam Geppert said.

The MDA's Hop-a-Thon program is designed to teach young children about disabilities that other children and adults have. The program also is intended to help build awareness, teach acceptance and motivate children to help at a young age.

During the past couple of weeks, North Routt Preschool's 21 students watched videos and read books about people with disabilities such as muscular dystrophies. The muscular dystrophies are a group of 43 genetic diseases characterized by the progressive weakening and degeneration of the muscles that control movement. There is no specific treatment for any of the forms of muscular dystrophy.

In Colorado, more than 1,800 people are affected by some form of muscular dystrophy, according to the MDA.

Teaching young children about muscular dystrophy and tolerance for those who are different because of diseases or disabilities is essential, said Dusti Davis, disability awareness coordinator for the Grand Junction office of the MDA.

"You've got to teach them while they're young," Davis said.

Children will encounter people with disabilities throughout their lives, and teaching them about the special needs many people have will help develop tolerance and acceptance. A lack of understanding often leads to teasing and harassment, she said. Knowledge also may motivate children and young adults to help those with disabilities.

"If they understand, they can help out and do something about it," Davis said.

But teaching young children, especially preschoolers, about disabilities isn't always easy.

"Because they're so young it's not the easiest thing for them to understand," Geppert said.

A lack of exposure to people with noticeable disabilities adds to the difficulty, she said.

Despite those challenges, the unit seems to have raised the aware--ness of some of the youngsters, who range in age from 2 to 5. Some children have talked about people with disabilities they've encountered in town and on the ski mountain, she said.

The message the preschool's teachers have been giving to the students is simple: "Everybody is unique. Everybody has their weaknesses. Everybody has their strengths," Geppert said. "It's more just accepting people for their differences."

The families and friends of many of the preschool students pledged money for each time the children hopped. Geppert estimated the unit raised a couple of hundred dollars for the MDA. Last year's Western Slope Hop-a-Thon program raised $80,000 for Colorado families struggling with muscular dystrophies, Davis said.

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