PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — “The reason I chose to focus on Ukraine was because I had heard a lot about it on the nightly news. I was interested because of the horrific injustices happening there for so many years. Getting news like that interested me because of my background. …”
That’s how Niko Boskovic’s winning essay began in a contest that would send 300 teens from around the world to the United Nations Pilgrimage for Youth in New York this summer.
Niko entered the contest in November, found out in January he won and learned in March he was not being accepted.
The board of the UN Pilgrimage, which operates as a national non-profit, won’t accept Niko as a delegate.
Niko, 15, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3 and uses a letter board to communicate.
“I want to stress that I belong here and people like me aren’t going anywhere.” — Niko Boskovic
“He uses the letter board to spell out each letter to make sentences and do homework and communicate with friends,” his mother, Loreta Boskovic, told KOIN 6 News. Autism hits each person differently and “in his case, his language was pretty much hit.”
But, as his essay showed, “he’s extremely eloquent.”
He entered the contest through the Peninsula Odd Fellows in Portland. David Scheer, the lodge secretary, told KOIN 6 News he really doesn’t know why the committee on the national level rejected Niko.
“It’s real difficult to give an answer because the committee that is on the national level will not talk to us, will not answer,” Scheer said. “We tried to contact them on that, we asked for a written explanation. All that we got was our check back and refusual to even answer our phone calls.”
Scheer said he is “disgusted, just absolutely appalled.” The Peninsula Odd Fellows, he said, is a fraternal organization that cares about everyone.
The only response they’ve gotten, he said, was an email that said no delegate could have a chaperone.
“All that the email said was I’ve been instructed to inform you that the quote-unquote special delegate will not be accepted and that chaperones are not accepted,” Scheer said.
“We were quite upset by the word ‘chaperone.’ This is not somebody who goes and makes sure a kid doesn’t get in trouble,” he said. “This is someone who operates as Niko’s voice.”
Loreta said Niko has been successful at Trillium School in Northeast Portland.
“We’ve found our niche in the community and people know us and they know Niko,” she said. “So it’s surprising to me to be in a situation where they’re like, ‘Whoa no, sorry we can’t handle the disability, we don’t accept disability.’ Just kind of boggles my mind, to be honest.”
She said she’s not angry but wants the officials at the UN Pilgrimage to reach out to try and find a solution. She shared an email from the executive director of UN Pilgrimage to a local organizer that says very little, only that Niko is not accepted and neither are chaperones.
But she still hasn’t heard anything official from anyone about why.
“I mean, you chaperone a dance, you chaperone a bus trip when your kid goes to the zoo,” she said. “This is going and being his support, his communication interpreter.”
The family got a lawyer through Disability Rights Oregon, Gordon Magella, who said he was shocked when he saw this case.
“I haven’t seen anything this blatant in a long time,” Magella said. “You know, it’s 2017. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has been around for almost 30 years, and to see something so profound and blatant was just surprising to me.”
He said he “can’t fathom” any reason Niko is being denied this trip except for the fact he has autism.
“It’s really that simple and that blatant,” Magella said.
KOIN 6 News reached out to officials with the national organization for comment and have not yet heard back.
During the interview with KOIN 6 News, Niko used his letter board to say, “I want to stress that I belong here and people like me aren’t going anywhere.”
Loreta said the local Peninsula Odd Fellows lodge “has been absolutely phenomenal,” and has raised about $1600 for Niko’s trip.
Regardless of what the decision from the national committee may be, Loreta plans to take him to Washington DC this summer.
Niko told his mom, “You have been my hero. Please never stop fighting for me.”