When River Christie-White started school, he didn't talk.
Now the 15-year-old First Nations teen speaks in front of crowds across Canada and the United States, spreading awareness about autism and the lack of support for children and families with special needs on reserves.
A hoop dancer, Christie-White uses the traditional art to lobby for inclusion and connect with other special needs kids. He runs his own organization, Hoops for Hope, and recently picked up an award for his efforts from London City Council.
"Going through elementary school, I was bullied a lot. I decided that I was going to try to stop that from happening to other people," said Christie-White, from the Oneida Nation of the Thames southwest of London.
"What started out as an idea ended up growing into my campaign." He's not after a cure. Instead, Christie-White is raising awareness and funds for services on-reserve.
"I believe that there's really no need for a cure. It makes a very unique personality," he said of autism. "I'd rather have acceptance for people on the spectrum."
And as Christie-White paints a picture with his brightly-coloured hoops-a beautiful flowing dance that speaks to traditional teaching about inclusion and community-he strikes a chord with other kids and teens.
His mom, Kristi White, recalled the young girl with Down's Syndrome who ran out to join Christie-White in the middle of a powwow.
"Every dance is a story," Christie-White said. "I can build an emotional connection to people with speaking and song."
And he's spread that message far and wide, travelling to the farthest reaches of northern Ontario and Quebec and heading south of the border. A family friend teaching in the Philippines even shared Christie-White's story with students in an autism-specific class there.
On his speaking circuit, Christie-White talks about everything from bullying to suicide to understanding autism. He ramped up the work around inclusion after a friend on the autism spectrum died by suicide. She was the victim of incessant bullying, he said. "It changed the way I looked at things. It wasn't a lack of support, it was a lack of understanding," Christie-White said.
He's trying to change that, especially on the reserve, noting that families with special needs are often so worried about judgement that they miss out on community gatherings.
On the Oneida Nation of the Thames, Christie-White acts as a sort of liaison, connecting families to Autism Ontario, offering advice, or just lending an ear or a smile. He runs a little booth that can serve as a "chill out" area for those who are overstimulated.
And he travels far and wide to spread the message that help is available, even tailoring his speeches to incorporate traditional teachings that are specific to the Indigenous peoples he'll be educating.
The goal is to build a community. "Everyone has their job and everyone fits together in some way. When we start pushing people away and start being negative towards others, it's almost like taking pieces out of a puzzle. It doesn't work in the end. It doesn't make the same picture."
Read the entire archived article and watch an accompanying video at: https://lfpress.com/2017/12/19/teen-hoop-dancer-campaigns-for-special-needs
To learn more about River’s most recent accomplishments and philanthropy endeavours visit the River Christie-White's Hoops for Hope Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/groups/673378056087485/?ref=share
Photo credit: Bangishimo Johnston from Nations and Voices Photograph
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