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Odd Fellows face criticism after rejection Winston-Salem-based Odd Fellows faces criticism after rejecting teen with autism Autistic winner of competition had trip to United Nations rescinded

Winston-Salem Journal - 5/2/2017

What do you think about the Odd Fellows' decision? Should Niko be allowed to make the trip to New York.

The Odd Fellows, a national fraternal organization based in Winston-Salem, is facing criticism after refusing to give a prize to an autistic Oregon boy who won a competition.

Niko Boskovic, 15, of Portland, Ore., recently won an essay contest sponsored by the North Portland Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Niko wrote about the history of Ukraine and received letters of recommendation from his teachers.

David Scheer, the Oregon lodge secretary, said Niko was the clear winner among his competitors and he had earned the prize - a trip to the United Nations in New York City. He said lodge members raised money to cover all costs Niko and a second winner needed to make the trip.

After the national organization learned that Niko is autistic and would need a chaperone, it rescinded the trip offer.

The essay contest, started in 1949 by the national organization, is promoted as "an opportunity of a lifetime to observe the United Nations in person while exchanging views on education, politics and religion." It will be held on July 8-18 and July 15-25, in New York.

At the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows on Trade Street, an Odd Fellows representative told a Winston-Salem Journal reporter he had no comment on the group's decision on Niko.

Odd Fellows has not responded to requests for comment from multiple media organizations or provided any statement on the controversy.

Odd Fellows says on its website an Odd Fellow promotes love and friendship and "never looks at people with prejudiced eyes or bases his judgment on outward appearances."

Niko's family was stunned by the group's decision to reject him.

After several emails and calls went unanswered, Niko's mother, Loreta Boskovic, received an email from the Odd Fellows' executive director.

"The Board of Directors has instructed me to tell you this delegate will not be accepted for the tour," the director wrote.

Boskovic said she never received a written explanation for why her son was rejected from the trip.

"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,'" she said.

The national organization told the Boskovics that they have rejected winners in the past with wheelchairs too.

Niko was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. Because of his condition, he finds it hard to speak, and his family instead gave him a letter board several years ago, which Niko uses to spell out words.

In response to the organization's rejection, the local lodge has pledged not to participate in the essay-writing contest again until the rules are amended to include those with disabilities.

"It's disappointing and it's disgusting, and it has really made many, many people upset," Scheer said.

Scheer said he has heard nothing from the national organization except a refund of the money the lodge had raised for Niko to travel.

Meanwhile, Niko and his family are fighting back, with the help of Disability Rights Oregon, an advocacy group. They are arguing that in rejecting Niko because of his autism, the Odd Fellows are violating his civil rights outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Not only was I willing to learn," Niko spelled about the trip. "But I wanted to be an ambassador, of sorts. Really, these people are making this into a civil rights case."

The McClatchy News Service contributed to this story.


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