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Riverhead teen’s summer internship inspires special needs fundraiser

After joining the Butterfly Effect Project last spring, 15-year-old Taliyah Moore quickly earned her nickname: “Sunshine.”

“Your nickname is how people perceive you,” said Tijuana Fulford, who founded the group in 2014 with a goal of empowering girls. “[Taliyah] is always happy-go-lucky and doesn’t let [her wheelchair] determine what she wants to do.”

Taliyah, who suffers from cerebral palsy, navigates her power wheelchair effortlessly during Butterfly events. She’s already making waves as a junior volunteer with the organization and as one of three paid summer interns made possible through a collaboration with the Suffolk County Department of Labor and First Baptist Church of Riverhead. 

Ms. Fulford said she’d been seeking a teenager with working papers to join the staff as an intern. She asked Taliyah’s mom, Latesha Moore, if she knew of any teens in the job market. At first, it didn’t even cross her mind that Taliyah could be an option.

“This is how small-minded we all can be,” she said. 

Ms. Moore responded by saying her daughter could do it.

“It was a ‘duh’ moment,” Ms. Fulford recalled.

Taliyah’s responsibilities include answering phones, inputting data and keeping up with both email and snail mail. “Basically, anything Ms. Tia tells us to do,” said Taliyah, who plans to continue as a volunteer after she starts 10th grade at Riverhead High School in September. 

A five-minute task like checking the mail may take Taliyah 15 minutes, but her boss doesn’t mind. 

“She’s so empowered doing it, and [the other girls] are being really inclusive, even when taking the garbage out,” Ms. Fulford said. “Even if it’s the long way.”

Office work had been a goal for the teen. Ms. Moore said her daughter’s been talking about office work ever since she was greeted at preschool by a receptionist who also had cerebral palsy.

“That’s why I wanted to work in an office,” Taliyah said. “I saw her doing it and thought maybe I could, too.”

Taliyah, who has three younger brothers, has already had a positive impact on those around her. 

According to Ms. Fulford, “she’s opened everyone’s eyes” to everyday issues often taken for granted.

Even using the bathroom.

It’s a tight squeeze for Taliyah, who must maneuver her bulky chair through a narrow, 28-inch doorway every time. The soft-spoken, confident teen is still all smiles as she makes her way through the doorway, but faces additional challenges inside.

“We have a dance we do,” Ms. Fulford said, mimicking the way she helps Taliyah get into the first of three tiny stalls.

According to current guidelines from the Americans with Disabilities Act, the minimum clearance width for a wheelchair is 36 inches for a hallway and 32 inches for a door. There are additional guidelines for bathrooms, including toilet and sink height and grab bar placement.

Because Taliyah is so independent in every other respect, the organization is looking to raise $20,000 to renovate the lower level bathrooms at First Baptist Church and bring them into ADA compliance. Contractors would widen the existing doorway and install a wheelchair-accessible bathroom stall, equipped with a grab bar, allowing Taliyah to use the restroom with ease.

Countertop donation boxes will be placed in stores around Riverhead, Flanders and Riverside. Donations can also be made directly to the organization at bepgirls.org. They’re hoping to have the bathroom up and running by October, when the next session of the program begins again.

An accessible bathroom, Ms. Moore said, would ease any worries about her daughter spending so much time at the church. She’s proud, albeit not surprised, to see Taliyah accomplishing so much. 

“Her dad and I were always telling her that there’s no such thing as ‘can’t.’ We tell all of our children that. As a parent of four, I feel I have to show them that whatever it is you want, you can achieve, whether it’s a goal for the day, for the month or for the year,” Ms. Moore said.

In the meantime, Taliyah is relishing all the joys that come with starting her first job. Her mom said she’s savvy at saving money, but when asked what she spent her first paycheck on, Taliyah beamed. “School clothes,” she said, pointing out her new outfit. “I like to shop at Rainbow.”

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Photo caption: Tijuana Fulford (left), who founded The Butterfly Effect Project, said having Taliyah Moore around has opened everyone’s eyes to everyday challenges, like using the bathroom. The group aims to raise $20,000 to bring the restrooms at the First Baptist Church in Riverhead into ADA compliance. (Credit: Tara Smith)