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Giving Tuesday 2021

It’s that time of year again! Our regional disability service providers work hard to provide the best care possible for the individuals they serve. Now is your chance to help them with their work through our Giving Tuesday donation match. On Tuesday, November 30, 2021, your donations to the below organizations will be matched by AWS Foundation dollar – for – dollar up to $10,000. Consider adding one (or more) of these organizations to your year-end giving.
Father and Son looking at computer

Tennessee Adopts Software Developed by Northeast Indiana Nonprofit and Disability Community

Fort Wayne, Ind. (Nov. 1, 2021) — AWS Foundation announced today that its software platform, Indiana Disability Resource FINDER, was chosen by Tennessee Disability Pathfinder ( to help people with disabilities living in Tennessee. FINDER, Indiana’s statewide portal to disability-related information, is designed to make it easier for individuals and their families to find services. Pathfinder’s adoption of the FINDER platform highlights the opportunity to expand Indiana’s centralized resource model to additional states.

“The FINDER program is uniquely positioned to support the disability community,” states Patti Hays, AWS Foundation CEO. “When we realized individuals in other states could benefit from the software, Tennessee Pathfinder was a natural fit with their desire to upgrade an existing platform. Developed in collaboration with individuals of the disability community, we are continually adding new features and functionality based on their user feedback.”

The website of disability-related information was created in Fort Wayne by AWS Foundation in collaboration with disability service providers, people with disabilities and their families, and local software developers. The Indiana Disability Resource FINDER program is administered by IU’s Indiana Institute on Disability and Community (IIDC) as part of its library information and referral services. Funded by AWS Foundation, FINDER is free to users.

“We’re proud of the entire Pathfinder team and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s partnership with so many state agencies and AWS Foundation to make this new website a reality,” said Elise McMillan, JD, Co-Director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Disabilities and the Faculty Director of Pathfinder.

Tennessee Disability Pathfinder is a project of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, part of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The new website upgrades the program’s original online directory. Updated interactive features match users anywhere in Tennessee with disability resources, service providers, and community events.

Tennessee Pathfinder recently kicked off the new website with an online Nashville-style launch celebration live across its social media pages, complete with special guests, musical entertainment, and giveaways.

“It has been a great experience working with AWS Foundation,” said Pathfinder Program Director Megan Hart. “This upgrade has allowed us to keep the important parts of Pathfinder’s existing online services while adding new features that allow users to better access and save information.”

InChoice Navigation, LLC, AWS Foundation’s fully-owned subsidiary, plans to expand the FINDER platform and its availability to other University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

About Tennessee Disability Pathfinder (
As part of The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, “Pathfinder” helps people with disabilities, their family members, educators, and other professionals across Tennessee connect to appropriate community resources, provides innovative trainings and presentations. The Pathfinder program aims to remove the barriers that many culturally diverse communities find when trying to access disability resources.

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.

Board Member Feature: Susan Trent, Chair

Susan TrentI serve as the AWS Foundation Chair because some experiences shape a person’s life.

For me, it was a gym class full of 5th grade square dancers in 1980. Square dancing posed two equal discomforts: 1) boys; and 2) the order of selection. This was especially true for a quiet bookworm who sported a hairstyle consisting mostly of tangles and two large barrettes, who wore Toughskins rather than Jordache jeans and whose Jelly shoes were devoid of beaded, friendship pins. Last to be picked – guaranteed exclusion – and a spot on the sideline. It was there, against that wall, that I would inevitably watch my classmates “Promenade” and “Do Si Do” for the hour-long gym class.

In a scene reminiscent of a John Hughes film, Chip Baxter (the most popular, athletic, smart, attractive boy in school) stood at one end of the gym – and slowly and very intentionally pointed his index finger – and through the sheer magnetic power of his grammar school social status – silently commanded the adolescent foursome pairs to split in two – not unlike Moses with his staff causing the Red Sea to part for the people of Israel.  It was at the other end of that gym that I sat with my back against the wall. Above the din of these Swatch Watch-wearing preteens, Chip pointed at me and roared: “I want to dance with you!”

To this day, I struggle to fully describe the initial wonderment and enormity of being really seen for the first time by every kid in that gym – and my great joy at being included in the dance. Those jubilant feelings were quickly dashed when Chip qualified his public pronouncement with “… because you are the only girl I haven’t danced with.” Holding back tears, I sat down and sat silent – resuming my place on the wall.

For the Chip’s in this community – our community and business leaders – your informed and thoughtful words, decisions and actions genuinely matter to removing needless barriers and creating significant and varied opportunities benefitting and enriching not only those with disabilities but the community as a whole. For the person on the wall – the disabled individual who may feel marginalized – they can tell you better than anyone how very empowering it is to be seen, heard and valued, to be able to contribute to and participate in the life of this community, to live as independently as possible and to reach their potential.

AWS Foundation, through its grants to amazing nonprofits in this community, through the FINDER program, and through strategic partnership with our affiliated organizations, namely, Benchmark Human Services, the AWRC, and AWS Holdings – educates and empowers – helping to take diversity from a meager, static measure in time – to inclusion as an achievable, flourishing investment in everybody’s future.

Shall we dance?