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RIDOH Hosts Eighth Annual Dare to Dream Leadership Conference for Students with Special Needs

On May 25th, an estimated 900 high school students, their teachers, and community partners gathered at the University of Rhode Island's Kingston campus to attend the eighth annual Dare to Dream Student Leadership Conference sponsored by the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH). They were joined by Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner, PhD, and RIDOH Executive Director Ana Novais.

The event, which featured nationally known keynote speakers, breakout session workshops, and music and dance performances, provided students with special needs the opportunity to examine the concepts of transition from adolescence to adulthood and to share their personal experiences with other students. The primary goal of the conference is to help students gain self-determination and leadership skills. The conference is unique because it is developed by youth, for youth.

"Helping to build valuable life skills for all of Rhode Island's adolescents is important," said Executive Director Novais. "Rhode Island is stronger when everyone has the opportunity to attain their full potential. We want to be a driving force behind these students learning valuable skills such as advocacy, teamwork, public speaking, time management, and mentoring."

Speaker Eric Rowles combined energy and innovation to reach students through his stories, research, and on-the-ground strategies. Speaker Monique Johnson shared her personal experiences and talked about meeting life's challenges by focusing on the reward of hard-pressed effort. Johnson is just 24 inches tall due to a genetic anomaly, but she is proof that physical limitations neither measure nor predict one's success in life.

Many of the individual breakout workshops were created and presented by peers on topics such as emergency planning, stress management, voting in upcoming elections, and preparing for a successful college career.

"At RIDOH, we are all too familiar with the statistics that show students with learning and emotional challenges are less likely to achieve in school, more likely to have disruptive behavior, and are often sad and isolated," said RIDOH Health Equity Institute Co-Director Deborah Garneau. "Through the Dare to Dream conference, we create an environment where students with diverse abilities can explore their potential, identify their unique capabilities for growth and development, and realize the powerful person they are."

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