Patti Hays

From the CEO

As the new CEO of the Foundation, let me welcome you to the first edition of its newsletter. Our goal is to share information with you, not only about AWS Foundation, but about events, trends and issues that highlight what is important to our mission.

In contemplating what to write in this inaugural edition, I turned to the seemingly endless stack of books that occupy my well-intentioned reading list. On top was Peaceful Neighbor by Michael Long. The author explores my hometown hero, Fred Rogers, as a counter culturalist. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was completely immersed in his values of non-violence, unconditional acceptance, and compassion. …and I continue to share these values with my children and others decades later.

Reading Long’s book, I learned that as a child Fred Rogers struggled with a weight problem. Bullied and chided by other kids calling “Hey, Fat Freddy”, I suspect contributed much to his message to all children assuring them of acceptance, just as they are. “I Like You As You Are” was in my children’s playlist of favorite songs along with the classics.

Fred Rogers preached diversity and compassion.  In the mid 1970’s, he introduced us to Mr. McFeely’s granddaughter, a young girl with spina bifida walking with braces and crutches. Fred Rogers’ message of acceptance was echoed in that young girl’s words when she said, “…what people have to remember is that everybody has limitation and it doesn’t matter if some are more obvious than others.” Later in 1980, he introduced us to Jeff Erlanger, an endearing ten- year- old using a power wheelchair. After talking with Jeff about some of the challenges of using a wheelchair, they sang another song “It’s you I like”. I revisited that episode when I first started with AWS Foundation and the message from precocious Jeff is woven through the Foundation’s mission.

AWS Foundation remembers and understands the challenges that many in Northeast Indiana face. Through our grant making we strive to make an independent life achievable for individuals with enduring disabilities. We focus on five key initiatives.

  • IMPROVING HOUSING. A home to call their own that is tailored to personal needs and preferences. It’s where people express their individuality, reach their full potential and thrive.
  • EXPANDING TRANSPORTATION. Accessible and affordable transportation broadens an individual’s geographical reach and opens a world of opportunity.
  • ADVANCING EDUCATION & EMPLOYMENT. Providing educational resources and meaningful employment opportunities becomes a launching pad for development of successful life skills and more independent living.
  • PROMOTING SOCIAL ENRICHMENT. Through inclusive social, recreational and arts programs, we seek to engage and inspire individuals with enduring disabilities.
  • SEEKING EARLY DIAGNOSIS & SYSTEM NAVIGATION. Every individual achieving their greatest potential is our ultimate aim. Exploring programs that recognize and diagnose disabilities early is critical to personal progress, optimal outcomes and lifelong success. The need for timely and accurate information is vital.

That ten-year-old I spoke about earlier, Jeff Erlanger, went on to chair the Commission on People with Disabilities in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1999, he surprised Fred Rogers with an unannounced appearance as Mr. Rogers was being inducted into the TV Hall of Fame to remind Mr. Rogers that it is “him that we all like”. I challenge you to watch that reunion and not cry. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3vp-EXQ5Rs)

Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy, I used to think that strong meant having big muscles and great physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.”  He was right.

AWS Foundation strives to be Fred Rogers strong. We envision Northeast Indiana composed of strong neighborhoods of compassion where all are accepted just as they are. Strong businesses based on a diverse workforce that embraces inclusion as well as innovation. Where differences are respected and appreciated in every aspect of community life. AWS Foundation strives to build a community of inclusion, independence and potential. I think Mr. Rogers would like that.