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Latrenda's Story: Fighting for an Inclusive World

Written by: Latrenda Zabaleta

I’ve been fighting for an inclusive world ever since primary school. I always found myself befriending the kids that people thought were weird, quirky, talked different, looked different, walked different. In the 6th grade I volunteered to read mail for a local blind man at the Hoboken Public Library, what 11-year-old does that? One who knew she would change the world, one inclusive moment at a time. 

The soft spot in my heart was born out of love from my family and my connection with Down syndrome. My cousin Nichole was birthed by my Aunt Nadine, my mother’s younger sister, and delivered in their childhood home in Hoboken by my mother, Queenie. I was present for the birth and remember my aunt telling my mother there was no time for a hospital ride, that the baby was coming and lowered herself to the ground. My mother, in a nervous panic, got on her knees ready to welcome her niece to the world. Nichole “Queen” was delivered in May 1990 surrounded by her loving family. It would be later upon my aunt’s arrival to the hospital that she would find out Nichole had Down syndrome. 

My aunt remembers the doctors asking her if she was abusing drugs during pregnancy, and hospital staff explaining that Nichole’s diagnosis meant she would never speak. The diagnosis was never a shock to our family, we were always the type of family to roll with the punches. Nichole, affectionately called “Nicky,” was the baby in her family, the sixth child, the 10th grandchild, and was adored and treated as such. 

Nicky sparked my interest in disability. She presented me with a challenge, one that I was ready to take on. I remember after school I would walk from my middle school to my aunt’s home to hang out with my cousins while my parents both worked late. I would come through the door, have a snack, play video games, watch shows, and always give Nicky, the baby, affection. Nicky was often seated on the floor or the couch, whichever she preferred. She would climb into her most comfortable spot on the couch or slide down the floor for a change. The more time I spent at my aunt’s home, the more I took notice that she wasn’t walking. As kids, we would come and go, but Nicky always stayed. Something needed to change. It lit a fire in me. Every day, I would attempt to bring her to her feet, her hands in mine, while she took steps around the kitchen and living room, giggling. We trialed this for weeks, maybe months. I noticed, she truly did want to walk and was willing to accept the help, and so she did. It was not until I was in college when I did the mental math and realized, that Nichole didn’t walk until she was about 8 years old, I myself, her personal gait trainer was 11 years old. 

Walking changed Nicky’s life, and truthfully speaking, it changed all of our lives. It meant she could keep up with us, go places, without being carried, or lugged, INCLUDED. No more being left behind or requiring someone to stay behind to watch her. It was the first time I felt I had made a true difference in someone’s life, and who more deserving than Nicky? Nicky has been my inspiration to become an Occupational Therapist and an advocate for inclusion. 

In 2020, I knew I wanted to do something more, something big. I wanted to open an inclusive center; a place where I could bring my then 4-year-old but still carry out my love for my work. My dream was for anyone to be able to share space regardless of ability. My dream came true in October 2023, after years of contracts, permits, consultation and a rigorous few months of construction headed by my husband, we opened our doors for our first inclusive event at Little Milestones for Small Discoveries. My son now, 7 years old is our mascot, amongst children of all ages and abilities, doing what they do best, playing, interacting, and sharing space. 

As I approach my 13th year as an Occupational Therapist, I have been blessed to partner with a schoolteacher, Veronika DeLeon-Kahraman, who has a strong passion for equity, fairness, and helping underserved communities. Together we have opened a pediatric therapy clinic dedicated to children in the heart of Jersey City, where services are not easily accessible or affordable. In under six months, we have been able to share our space with typical and neurodiverse children TOGETHER. We have had open play, movie nights, birthday parties, egg hunts, pajamas and pizza, dance parties, and so much more! Gone are the days where there is a need for separation, inclusion is the only way we know, and the only way we will move forward.

As I continue to help families throughout Hudson County, will various abilities, children and people with Down syndrome, hold a special place in my heart.

Will you join us to embrace neurodiversity and all abilities? We can’t wait to meet you.


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