Picture a busy high school cafeteria, one where groups of students sit together and talk about the latest movie or TV show, or homework and upcoming tests. Now, picture a group of students bullying a single student eating his lunch alone.
That student was Dalton Letta, who has autism.
Once fellow classmate Joe Maier heard that Dalton was being bullied, he took it upon himself to do something about it, and in the end, the pair became fast friends.
“Lunch has always been an easy place for students to be bullied,” says Joe, a member of the Keuka College Classes of 2016 and 2017. “Having supportive peers around can really prevent these behaviors from happening, thereby allowing students to feel safe when they come to school, and that they belong.”
Now, the duo shares their story with students and teachers throughout the Rochester area, spreading awareness about how simple acts of kindness and friendship can change someone’s life, and enhance their experience in school.
Joe and Dalton title their story “No One Eats Lunch Alone,” and they will bring their free presentation to Keuka College on Tuesday, March 26. It begins at 4:45 p.m. in Norton Chapel and is open to all members of the College community.
“We are so excited to bring Joe back to Keuka College to talk about what he has done since graduation, and the journey that he and Dalton are on to bring awareness and equality to all,” says Emily Van Bortel ’19, an occupational science major from Penfield, and president of the Student Occupational Therapy Association.
“I am so thrilled and excited to return to campus to present with Dalton,” says Joe, an occupational therapist at the Edna Tina Wilson Living Center in Rochester. “He was a huge driving force for my career path as an occupational therapist. Dalton is talented and outgoing, loves theater, and is an amazing performer. He aspires to change the way people see students and individuals with autism. His drive to ensure no one feels the way he did before our friendship inspires me to share our message and reach as many people as possible.”
Once Joe began eating lunch with Dalton at Spencerport High School and getting to know him, they started spending time outside of school, going to the movies and hiking.
“I’ve tried to get involved with everything he has going on to support him,” says Joe. “Whether it was theatre shows he was performing in, autism walks, or just hanging out. We’ve been close ever since.”
Joe and Dalton began sharing their story at Monroe 1 BOCES when Dalton was asked to speak about his role as the Autism Ambassador for Monroe County. In this role, Dalton is charged with speaking to educators, employers, and members of law enforcement about how to treat individuals with autism.
“Dalton wanted to use this as an opportunity to share his experiences in high school as a way to get current students to be more aware of what it’s like to be different, and feeling like an outcast by peers,” says Joe.
In addition to speaking in schools around the area, Joe and Dalton have created community forums for families and those on the autism spectrum as a way to discuss issues they face daily, such as with transportation and other resources that may be lacking.
And Joe credits Keuka College for helping him gain a unique perspective in his profession.
“We learned how to advocate for ourselves as therapists, the community, and individuals with disabilities through coursework that made me feel confident in presenting with Dalton,” says Joe. “My background in diagnoses allows me to portray the realities young men and woman like Dalton live through growing up in public schools, along with challenges they face in everyday life.”
According to Emily, this presentation is important for all students, regardless of major.
“My hope is that people become empowered when listening to Joe and Dalton’s story,” she says. “Empowered to go out and make a difference within their community, and change someone’s life or place a mark on it. Empowered to stand up for someone or something that they do not agree with. Empowered to accept someone who may be different than themselves. Empowered to make a change and, who knows, maybe even make a life-long best friend.”