Decals to help special needs community

BROWNSVILLE — Ceci Sanchez tearfully recalled the most recent emotional encounter involving her family and law enforcement, the third such occurrence since December:

“When I arrived on the scene, my husband, Abe, was in handcuffs. My son, Quatro, watched as he thought his father was going to jail. My daughter, 8-year-old Sofi, was sobbing as she sat in the backseat of his car.”

Ceci quickly intervened.

“I jumped out of my vehicle very aware that I was escalating the situation,” she recalled. “I just wanted to get the message across that my daughter has autism.”

The 911 emergency had been called into the Brownsville Police Department as a domestic disturbance: a man had been identified “throwing things into a car, and a young girl was screaming.”

Thankfully, the two police officers maintained their poise and allowed Ceci to explain, and the situation was slowly defused.

Ceci continued, “We, and other families like us, don’t want to have these experiences, but this is our reality,” she explained. “By creating awareness, using these new law enforcement decals to establish a better understanding of how to serve our special population, I am very thankful for the opportunity on behalf of our kids with special needs.”

Ceci was the featured speaker at the Special Needs Awareness Decal Kickoff held on Thursday morning at the Driscoll Children’s Specialty Center in Brownsville.

Ceci described her two children: 11-year-old Quatro as a “bright, outgoing, athletic, neuro-typical son, and her daughter, 8-year-old Sofia as “funny, sassy, vivacious, and is on the autism spectrum.”

It was Quatro Sanchez’ friendship with Zeke Zarate, the son of Sergio Zarate, the Vice-President of the nonprofit Down by the Border, that drew attention to the Sanchez family’s intensifying challenges. The boys met playing baseball in the same league five years ago, and bonded over the fact that they each have sisters who are autistic.

“I had seen a similar decal,” Zarate says, “and I realized that a program like this could help provide our local law enforcement a ‘head’s-up’ in the kinds of situations that they might encounter,” he explained.

At present, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department has instituted a comparable decal program, and those stickers are also displayed in homes as well as in vehicles.

Within two months of hearing about the latest incident involving the Sanchez family and law enforcement Zarate had hired a graphic designer, and implemented the application process for the Law Enforcement Special Needs Awareness Decals.

Each decal alerts emergency responders utilizing a color coding system: a Green background indicates the Special Need, Cerebral Palsy; the Blue background is Special Needs, Autism; the decal with the Yellow background, Down Syndrome; a decal with a Purple background indicates Epilepsy; and the Black decal indicates a person with Multiple Special Needs.

According to Zarate, in a few weeks, Down by the Border will be rolling -out a Special Needs decal for older persons with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

The Down by the Border Logo is featured at the top and bottom of each sticker, and on the upper left side is the International Symbol of Access (ISA), also know as the International Wheelchair Symbol: a white stylized image of a person in a wheel chair. Each reflective sticker is approximately 5 by 7 inches, and should be displayed in the lower left corner of the vehicle’s rear window.

“All the decals provide an immediate visual aid for law enforcement indicating that the occupant of the vehicle may not be able to respond to verbal commands,” Zarate emphasized.

Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz also spoke at the event, praising the “Special Needs kids as Super Heroes,” and state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. was there to encourage the crowd to support the awareness campaign with a quote from St. Paul:

“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7

The application process is managed though the Brownsville Police Department and its officers hold full discretion over its use, including the authority to remove the decal for violations. Each decal is assigned a four-digit number after the police department has verified the information on the application.

The Special Needs Awareness Decal application must include a written diagnosis supplied by the treating medical provider. With each application, families will be given two Special Need Awareness decals, one for use in their car, the other can be displayed near the front entrance of their home.

Brownsville Police Chief Felix Sauceda drew attention to the fact that once the application is entered into the Computer-Aided Dispatch System, (CAD), it will provide officers and emergency responders with the ability to “immediately verify that someone who can’t communicate effectively” is with a vehicle or resides in the home.

Down by the Border spent $1,500 for the initial run of 1,000 stickers, but there is no charge to the families for each sticker.

Applications are available for the Law Enforcement Special Needs Decal at the Driscoll Children’s Specialty Center, 5500 N. Expressway 77 in Brownsville during normal business hours.