For two years in a row, Dutchess County hosted the Winter Special Olympics -- not for the tourism dollars it might bring it but because of how the event might transform the people of the community.
"We wanted to engage Dutchess County residents in a volunteer way to help and understand and appreciate that anyone with any ability can achieve great things," said Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro on Thursday during a talk at the Arc Community Center on Woodrow Road in Batavia.
Getting people to "Think Differently" about people with special needs has been a mission for Molinaro for the past several years. He regularly gives talks around the state about the programs, policies and practices Duchess County has enacted under his leadership.
More than 100 government and nonprofit agencies have passed resolutions to adopt the Think Differently commitment.
The idea of Think Differently started for the father of three -- Eli, 16 months, Jack, 8, and Abigail, 14 -- late one afternoon when Molinaro came home from work and his wife told him that Abigail was in her room crying.
Alarmed, Molinaro rush to her side to see what was wrong.
"I can't do it," she said. "I will never be able to do it."
She said all of her friends could do it. But she couldn't do it.
"I can't tie my shoes and I'll never be able to do it."
Molinaro reached down, expecting to do what he thought any good father would do at that point -- tie her shoelaces.
Then his wife appeared in the room and said, "you can't do it. You have to think differently about how we teach her."
In an instant, Molinaro realized how he related to his daughter needed to change.
"I realized at that very moment what I was doing as a dad was failing my daughter," Molinaro said.
That lesson soon carried over to how he viewed the thousands of families in his county who also dealt with issues related to their special-needs members. One day it became apparent how daunting it could be when it took three people on his staff to help him figure out how to get a Medicaid waiver for his daughter.
"I couldn’t imagine how difficult it was for an average family to maneuver through a bureaucratic maze this state creates," Molinaro said.
That's how the Think Differently campaign was born in Dutchess County.
About 100 community leaders heard from Molinaro, who is also a candidate for governor, during the forum on Thursday.
Molinaro explained that he appointed a deputy to be an advocate for people with disabilities. They looked at how housing was delivered; how law enforcement was trained; what businesses could do differently; and what services could be delivered to better assist these families.
Molinaro said a school official was shocked the day his deputy called the school district about a problem involving a student and the school official wanted to know why a county official was calling about a school district issue. Molinaro's deputy explained his job to her and the problem got fixed.
The county has created a Think Differently website that uses a questionnaire to help guide families to the assistance and services they need.
There is now a database in the emergency dispatch center that provides dispatchers with information about people at each address in the county with special needs so first responders can arrive on a scene with more knowledge about health concerns, interaction-requirements, or mental health issues.
The county launched an effort to train local business owners about how to better serve people with special needs; how to hire and train people with disabilities; and how to make Dutchess County more welcoming to tourists who need extra assistance.
"We say to businesses all the time, 'this isn’t just good,' " Molinaro said, " 'it’s great, quality-of-life stuff that is great for business.' "
To assist employers who might hire special-needs employees who can only work part time, bus routes have been changed.
The Hudson Valley Renegades, the New York Penn League team, now hosts a training camp each year to teach the fundamentals of baseball to anyone regardless of ability.
The community college now has a program called "Think Ahead," that provides educational opportunities for people with disabilities.
Each year now, the Dutchess County Fair, has a special day for people with who might have a hard time getting around or have a hard time dealing with sensory overload, so access is modified, the lights and music on the midway is turned off, and the members of 4-H are trained how to work with people with disabilities.
Molinaro said that people from throughout the Northeast come to the fair for that unique day.
"We had a family from Ohio because they had never been able to take their kid to a fair," Molinaro said.
The annual film festival in Dutchess County is now a big hit. Children who had never been to a movie theater before are given the chance to enjoy the movie-theater experience.
Molinaro recalled talking with a mother who thanked him for the opportunity to take her child to a movie because she said she had never had the courage before to take her to a theater.
"I thought about the words she said," Molinaro said. "She said it took her courage to bring her daughter to the movies. Now there are some really awful movies but I don’t remember ever needing the courage to see them. It began to embody for us what Think Differently really means. That this mother needed to summon the courage to bring her daughter to a movie.
"Even the smallest activity becomes a challenge for some families and some individual, so creating the environment where people don’t need to feel courageous to do something -- that is what Think Differently is about."