AWS Foundation Welcomes Mandy Drakeford as Program Officer

Fort Wayne, IN — October 14, 2021 — AWS Foundation announced today that Mandy Drakeford had been selected as their new Program Officer. Drakeford previously served as Executive Director of GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne.

“We are delighted to welcome Mandy to our team. She brings a wonderful balance of mission-related and professional experience to the foundation,” states Patti Hays, AWS Foundation’s CEO. “Mandy’s passion for working with people of varied abilities is a great match with our mission to serve the disability communities across Northeast Indiana.”

Before joining the foundation, Ms. Drakeford’s non-profit experience also includes a wide range of programming, fundraising, and event management at SCAN (Stop Child Abuse and Neglect), Levine Museum of the New South, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation, and the University of Cincinnati Foundation. She currently serves as an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.

“I am honored to join the team at AWS Foundation,” said Ms. Drakeford. “I look forward to partnering with the staff, board, and grantees as we encourage our community to think differently about how to help individuals of all abilities achieve their highest potential.”

Drakeford received her bachelor’s and Master of Arts in Communication from the University of Cincinnati and holds an Accreditation in Public Relations from the Public Relations Society of America. She has participated in many professional activities and received several awards, including Fort Wayne Business Weekly 40 Under 40 Honoree and Public Relations Society of America’s New Professional of the Year.

Mandy Drakeford joins an existing staff of six dedicated to celebrating the unique contributions that people with disabilities make in the community and providing every opportunity for each individual to achieve their fullest potential.

All In

By: Joni Schmalzried

Employment is one of AWS Foundation’s primary initiatives. We recognize the value that individuals with varying abilities bring to the workplace and believe in ‘employment first’ for individuals with disabilities. We fund many organizations throughout NE Indiana that have a focus on employment for the individuals they serve. The amazing service providers in our region continue to work and build employment programs and opportunities. However, without a doubt, individuals with disabilities are underpaid, under-employed, and under-utilized.

With all the things we ‘know’ you would think we would see a larger impact on employment. Why isn’t that happening? What is that black hole that lives between what we know and what we do?

The employment gap is not a blame game – pockets of people, organizations, businesses, and providers understand that people with disabilities make great employees. We have some amazing employers committed to hiring.  The problem is that our communities need some key businesses to go all in to make a dent. Commit to train your executives, HR people, and staff. Move from complicated online applications to one that is more accessible.  Talk with others who have entered this hiring arena, learn from them. Work with a local service provider, an agency who specializes in the disability workforce, or Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

Community businesses need employees, people with disabilities need job opportunities. A million people with disabilities lost their jobs during the pandemic…a million people chose to leave their jobs last month. Math is not my strength, but the employee shortage at this time is undeniable. As a community, we need to step up in the employment arena.  Are you interested, but not sure where to start?  Give me a call.

FINDER Takes a New Path

FINDER, Indiana’s state-wide disabilities resource portal, can now be found in Tennessee!

When Tennessee Disability Pathfinder decided to complete a major upgrade of their website that finds and connects people to disability resources across Tennessee, they chose to partner with AWS Foundation and It’s exciting to see how technology developed in Fort Wayne is now helping thousands of people across two states search for disability resources, training, and events in their local communities.

In September, Pathfinder unveiled their new website,, using a Nashville-style launch celebration to spread the word. The event included live music, site demonstrations, a search-for-information contest, door prizes, and more! We were there (virtually) to celebrate with them. Check it out here.

“It has been a great experience working with AWS,” said Pathfinder program director Megan Hart. “This upgrade has allowed us to keep the important parts of Pathfinder’s website while adding new features that allow users to better access and save information.” is a project of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, part of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Tennessee’s Council on Developmental Disabilities Executive Director Wanda Willis said, “This upgrade is a huge jump forward. It just got easier to find the support people with disabilities in Tennessee need to live great lives. I am especially proud of how many public and private partners came together to make this happen.”

To help your organization, clients, and employees, you can easily connect FINDER to your website. Many have great results…and it’s FREE. Click here for instructions, icons, and FINDER materials to help you put FINDER’s mission to work for you.

Looking ahead…Tennessee is only a first step. AWS Foundation continues to offer states around the country an opportunity to implement FINDER, presenting Indiana’s state-wide program as the model that makes it easier for people of varied abilities to find the resources they need where they live, work, and play.

To learn more about Indiana Disability Resource FINDER, click here and share in the mission!

Patti Hays, CEO

From the CEO: Fort Wayne Livability

An easy way to get me to click on an article is to entice me with a list.  10 Best Vacation Spots. Top Restaurants in Indiana. Best Books of 2021. I am looking for The Best! So, naturally, I clicked through on the recent Wallet Hub listing of “Best and Worst Cities for People with Disabilities.”

AWS Foundation wants to contribute to Northeast Indiana being a better place to live for those with disabilities. This is the first attempt I have found in many years to try and identify what makes a livable city and objectively score cities by the criteria.

180 cities were scored on 34 metrics.  Metrics were weighted (e.g., Median Earnings for People with Disabilities were more important than the Annual Cost of In-Home Services).  The data was gleaned from government sources such as Census, Bureau of Labor, HUD, CDC, and other agencies and cities were order ranked in three main categories: Economy, Quality of Life and Health Care for an Overall Score.

Fort Wayne ranked 117th, in between Hialeah, Florida and Salem, Oregon. Indianapolis was 45th!

My first response was a bit defensive, but I looked at some of the specifics.  The metric with the highest point count was “Percent of Residents that are fully Vaccinated.”  After a time to think, I had to agree.  Vaccination is an indicator of caring for others in your community. Those with a disability are likely to want to live where others are compassionate and altruistic. The next highest number of points was the score for “Share of People with Disabilities.”  I had to agree with that one as well.  Who wants to live where they are without a peer group?

October is National Disability Awareness Month. As would be expected, metrics used for this scoring included Median Earnings, Employment Rate, Poverty rate, and Presence of Employment First Initiative for People with Disabilities, and they were heavily weighted. Economy was one-third of the score, and employment is economy.

People with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty and to be unemployed than the general population. One recent study showed a family who has a member with a disability needs 28% more income to align with other families.

Five experts in the field were asked about the results, including what they saw as the top indicators of desirable cities. Emergency Services, Advocacy and Government engagement, support for Self-Direction, and Accessible Healthcare were just a few other potential metrics mentioned by those who commented.

Many of the metrics match with the initiatives of AWS Foundation funding. We are working with area institutions to provide sufficient special education teachers. We know and support walkable parks and playgrounds. Stores, theaters, restaurants, and all buildings need to be wheelchair accessible and more. I would encourage you to look at the report and make your observations and critique. Wallet Hub invites you to comment.

Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana is gaining recognition as a desirable community. Join us and our partners to make it desirable for all, and next time we will be on the ‘Best’ list.

Big and Small, We Need them All

by Joni Schmalzried

As another grant cycle approaches the review stage, I have been reflecting on the wide variety of grant making that takes place, not only at AWS Foundation, but our neighboring Foundations as well.

As the community leans in to look at the grantmaking of AWS Foundation, I think there are some important things to know. Grants come in all shapes and sizes…everything from a small Mighty Money grant to support a self-advocacy organization to the large Vantage Grants you may have recently read about. Each grant request before us receives the same TLC (from both our staff and board), regardless of the ask. AWS Foundation recognizes the importance of both the big and small grants and initiatives. The field of disability is deep and wide; without a plethora of organizations serving the mission, individuals and their families would not have the ‘choice’ that is imperative.

At the same time, I have thought about some of the most impactful grants I have seen in my (almost) three years at AWS Foundation.

One of my first ‘new’ grantees was a small ask to hire ASL interpreters for a theater/music performance. Not only was the grantee ecstatic, when I attended the performance – I saw first-hand the power of small levels of support along with the impact that mission minded organizations can make. Another powerful grant memory was with a school district to train a classroom emotional service dog. Those pictures were truly worth a thousand words.

To all of our grantees, big and small – we value you, appreciate the work you do, and are honored to walk with you as you build and grow an inclusive and universally designed Northeast Indiana.

The Power of Perception

Something is affecting the disability community as a whole that is rarely mentioned. This topic tends to make others uncomfortable, but it’s essential for disability advocacy. September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and we don’t talk about suicide rates of disabled people enough.

The CDC reports that adults with disabilities are five times more likely to report mental distress than non-disabled people. For some disabilities, this could manifest in anxiety or similar conditions. Often people with a diagnosis of disability have a second diagnosis of depression or other major psychiatric disorder.

Many studies offer the same findings; autistic people are three times as likely to die by suicide than neurotypical people. If the autistic person is neurotypical passing (not an outwardly noticeable disability), it’s more likely that they will be one of those statistics. Autism isn’t the only diagnosis with a significant prevalence, but little research is out there. Even in our national statistics broken down by demographics, disability is not included.

Many have found that the disability itself is not the cause but the negative societal perception of disability. People with disabilities are more likely to face social isolation, are patronized and infantilized, unwillingly serve as inspiration porn, and are subject to outright discrimination. Non-disabled people may place less value on the lives of disabled people, especially in the workplace. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, messaging of protecting those most susceptible to death from the virus, a group that includes people with disabilities, has been met with apathy and disregard by too many. With all of this, and more, it’s surprising that the CDC doesn’t report an even higher rate of dual diagnosis.

We fund many wonderful organizations that are doing great things for people with disabilities. Still, mental health is infrequently a topic of conversation in disability advocacy. Access to mental health care is vital for people with disabilities to truly reach their full potential and live as independently as possible. But suppose we work together to adjust the public perception of disability, centering those messages on the perspectives of actual disabled people. In that case, we may get to a place where people with disabilities no longer feel like outsiders and have overall improved mental health.

Mural painted on ground in parking lot of koi in a river, three-dimensional to look as if it is coming from a storm drain in the lot. The office building with the AWS Foundation logo is behind the mural.

From the CEO: River Art

One of the attributes of an inclusive community is full access to resources for all citizens.  In Fort Wayne, we know that one of those resources is the rivers. We didn’t fully appreciate them for many years, but with the 2019 opening of Promenade Park many of us had greater access to those resources.  AWS Foundation was proud to help just a little bit with that access.

It seems that other people agreed with the quality of that development. Late in August it was announced that Promenade Park was named a winner of the 2021 Urban Land Institute Americas Award for Excellence. That transformation of those 4.5 acres helped us all realize that the rivers we cross every day were worth uncovering and exploring. We now see people of all abilities appreciating what attracted the early development of this region.

There is another community wide program AWS Foundation is supporting that emphasizes the importance of preserving the access of the rivers for all citizens.  CLEAN DRAINS Fort Wayne is a collaboration with Fort Wayne Utilities and Friends of the Rivers to limit pollutants and chemical runoff from entering storm drains. When allowed to enter storm drains, those pollutants and solid waste compromise the river environment and all those animals who rely on clean rivers…including us!

Mural painted on ground in parking lot of koi in a river, three-dimensional to look as if it is coming from a storm drain in the lot. The office building with the AWS Foundation logo is behind the mural.

Photo: Ferguson Advertising

This city-wide initiative involves creating art around storm drains to reinforce the message “Be River SmART”.  While our office may not be on the downtown circuit, we were not going to miss the opportunity to decorate one of the two storm drains in our front parking lot!

Our rock star marketing partners at Ferguson made it a reality. Thanks to Bob Kiel and other skilled artist with Ferguson, we have an interactive display inviting you to be a part of the picture.

Mural painted on ground in parking lot of koi in a river, three-dimensional to look as if it is coming from a storm drain in the lot. The office building with the AWS Foundation logo is behind the mural. Three women are interacting with the three-dimensional aspect of the mural by pretending to fall into the water.

When visiting our office or just on your way past the building, I invite each of you to take a dive into this campaign.  Please post your photos on social media and tag us to show your support for the three Fort Wayne Rivers for they are a valued and protected part of this inclusive community.

Illustration of a group of people with various disabilities in a workplace setting. The words say "person-first or identity first?"

I Before E Except After C….

I before E except after C and when sounded as A such as neighbor and weigh.

I so appreciate having these kinds of creative mnemonics to help me learn something new. And just when I think I understand it, along comes “caffeine,” “seize,” and “policies.

How often do we hear people struggle to find the correct word to use when talking about individuals within the service realm of AWS Foundation? It can be awkward for some as they search their memories for a proper reference, often knowing to avoid the “R word,” but uncertain if “low IQ,” “normal,” or “mentally challenged” are acceptable. (They are NOT)

Then along came PERSON FIRST language and everything was clear.  We had our reminder on what to say. Woman with Down syndrome. Persons with low vision. Man with a spinal cord injury. The intent is to first recognize the person, not the disability.

Just like the words “caffeine” and “seize,” there are exceptions to this rule.

Increasingly I am finding self-advocates pushing back against person first language. Those in the Deaf community identify themselves as “deaf,” not person with hearing loss or individual who is deaf. Shayla Mass has multiple disabilities including, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and she is quick to say, “I am actually disabled…don’t be afraid to say the word disabled.” More and more people are defining themselves as autistic, acknowledging that it is part of their identity.

It starts getting weird (another word that doesn’t follow the above spelling rule) when we see people struggle to find the right words. Is it “differently-abled” or “varying abilities?” What about “special needs?” (Some self-advocates prefer you don’t use these either)

Let’s acknowledge that we are trying to be respectful, AND honor an individual’s preference. I learned early in nursing training to never refer to the “heart attack in room 1” and to never reference a patient with a stroke “their good side” or “bad side.”

If possible, ASK the person’s preference. Sometimes they can give you a clue when you hear how they refer to themselves or to others. If you make a mistake, apologize and pledge to try to do better. Hopefully, the correction to your language was shared with an attempt at compassion and grace. But above all else, don’t let your uncertainty of language be the reason you aren’t joining the conversation.

Here is my attempt for a catchy reminder:

Acknowledge the person and then the condition
When an error occurs, then offer contrition

When word preference is shared and another requested
Take it to heart and do as suggested

Respect is preferred, so offer humility
If ever in doubt, ASK about ability

AWS Foundation Awards $4,665,087 to Five Disability Service Providers

AWS Foundation awards Vantage Grants totaling $4,665,087 to five select nonprofit disability service providers serving Northeast Indiana: Cardinal Services, Carey Services, Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana, Pathfinder Services, and Turnstone. In January, Vantage Grant participants initially received $75,000 and six months to identify and explore significant barriers and find a path toward solutions that would transform how they serve the disability community. After analyzing their findings and developing a plan to meet those needs, each organization was extended an invitation from AWS Foundation to apply for up to $1,000,000 of additional funding to implement a three-to-five-year plan of action. $4,665,087 was awarded based on presentation findings.

“These five organizations have worked hard over the past six months to tackle a challenge that has repeatedly been beyond their reach,” says Patti Hays, AWS Foundation CEO. “The Vantage Grant will allow them to provide services or processes in their organizations that might have otherwise been years away from their existing resources.” Ms. Hays goes on to say that direct nonprofit service providers rarely have time, personnel, or budgets to look beyond their daily operational demands.

AWS Foundation established the Vantage Grant to offer nonprofits by invitation, the opportunity to take a reflective position intended to give them a strategic advantage and perspective on their operations. Six additional nonprofit organizations have been chosen to participate in a second round of evaluations to begin later this fall.

From the CEO: Why I Work at AWSF

In my years with AWS Foundation, first as a board member and then as CEO, I am often asked why I am so involved with our mission. I have never been directly responsible for the care of a family member with an enduring disability. I have cared for patients with disabilities, but 8-hour shifts in a hospital with access to Hoyer lifts and needed equipment is not the same.

I  recall my mother telling stories of her oldest brother spending long months in the hospital with severe Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis as a child. Her only sister saw two of her four children die as young adults with a form of muscular dystrophy. My cousin had Legg-Perthes and wore a leg brace that allowed him to stand without damaging the head of his femur….but none of these had a significant direct impact on my day-to-day activities.

My final answer usually includes a reference to growing up in a middle-class household with a clear expectation of giving back. I remember days of hearing the rhythmic sounds of a typewriter in the living room as my mother copied books to a larger font for the visually impaired, one page at a time. I would canvas our neighborhood in Western Pennsylvania to collect enough dimes to fill a card for The March of Dimes campaign with my sisters. I remember the card with a picture of a child in leg braces and the excitement as I filled each slot as the day progressed. At Halloween, the collection was for UNICEF, and the neighbors gave all the same. March of Dimes ad

One of the highlights of the summer vacation was getting the requested packet from the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) for the backyard carnival. For those who did not grow up in the 60s, this was part of the annual Jerry Lewis Day MDA telethon. Before the big Labor Day event, kids were encouraged to organize backyard carnivals for other kids to collect the price of a ticket and the fees from the games. Homemade costumes, lemonade stands, and games with prizes of recycled toys and trinkets would likely yield a bag of coins that would be delivered to a local collection spot.

None of this was seen as work or a mandated consequence for some selfish act. It was always just a part of who I was and who my family was. “To whom much is given, much is required.” (Luke 12:48). My family of six was blessed with health, and we were responsible for giving back to our community. Philanthropy is that desire to promote the welfare of others; to focus on quality of life and the public good.

I believe our three children have grown up with a similar sense of giving. One reads to children in local schools. One serves on a board of a nonprofit, and none can pass a red kettle or a Girl Scout selling cookies without reaching into their pocket. Each in their own way knows they are responsible for giving back.

I have realized that  I work with AWS Foundation because of that sense of responsibility and maybe even a little about the joy and pride of knowing the outcomes of those backyard summer carnivals.