PORTLAND, Ore. -- A Portland teenager who won a national writing contest and the trip of a lifetime is now fighting for his civil rights.
Niko Boskovic’s family said after contest officials from the Order of Odd Fellows United Nations Pilgrimage for Youth, Inc. learned their son had autism, they yanked his award.
“They came back after a month and a half with, ‘Sorry, he's no longer able to take part and chaperones are not allowed to take part either,’” said Niko’s mother, Loreta Boskovic.
When Niko, 15, was 3 years old, doctors diagnosed him with autism, which makes talking very difficult for him. Loreta said a few years ago a simple letter board changed everything. Niko now communicates by pointing to letters on the board to spell what he wants to say.
“Now I can't shut up,” spelled Niko.
“He's a good writer,” added Loreta.
So good, Niko won an essay contest sponsored by the Odd Fellows, a national fraternal organization. For his essay on Ukraine, Portland's Peninsula Odd Fellows Lodge chose Niko to join 300 kids from around the world to go to New York for The United Nations Pilgrimage For Youth. The local lodge raised the $1,600 dollars needed to pay for the trip.
“He was our choice,” said Peninsula Odd Fellows Lodge secretary David Scheer.
Niko was thrilled.
“Not often do we see someone of my challenges, that takes so much time to communicate, take part in something like this,” spelled Niko.
But then, the Peninsula lodge got an email from the order's national nonprofit saying Niko would not be accepted for the trip after all.
“We can't get any explanation in writing from them but when I spoke with the gentleman who’s the board chair for the UN Youth Program, he said ‘we are not equipped to accept people with disabilities,’” said Loreta.
KGW reached out to the National Odd Fellows board and is waiting for a response.
Scheer said the local lodge filed a complaint, demanding to know why Niko had been rejected.
“We got no reply back except for a check refunding the money that we had paid for him,” said Scheer. “We're not going to allow them to discriminate like this.”
Scheer said the local lodge is giving Niko the prize money to use on a trip of his choice. It’s also boycotting the UN Pilgrimage Program until the organization agrees to not discriminate against winners because of their disabilities.
Disability Rights Oregon is also getting involved.
“We do intend to move forward with this,” said Gordon Magella, an attorney with Disability Rights Oregon. He said so far, the Odd Fellows national organization hasn't returned their calls, either.
“This organization is really, flatly discriminating against Niko, just because he has autism and he uses his a letter board,” said Magella. “It's that blatant.”
Niko communicated that he had high hopes for the trip.
“Not only was I willing to learn,” spelled Niko. “But I wanted to be an ambassador, of sorts.”
Now staying home could make Niko an ambassador to the world.
“Really, these people are making this into a civil rights case,” spelled Niko.
Asked if he thought he would win such a case, Niko pointed his finger at the board and spelled “Y-E-S.”
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