Celebrating our 10th Year

Last month we finished our year-long 10th Anniversary celebration.  As we look back on the year, we also look to our future in making Northeast Indiana a thriving, inclusive community for those with disabilities. Here’s a look at all of the fun we’ve had this past year.

TinCaps Game

We kicked off our celebration at our annual TinCaps game. To make this year’s event extra special, we added a few surprises. The TinCaps provided opportunities for some of our friends to play on-field games that were a blast! We also gave out limited edition AWS Foundation hats to guests. These annual games are always fun, but our 2017 game was an all-time high with record attendance and activities.



Buddy Benches

For those who don’t know, a Buddy Bench is a catalyst for friendship. A child sits on the bench to let other children know he/she wants to play. We asked local artists to paint benches which we placed at ten different schools. These schools were selected for continues efforts to enhance the education of their students with disabilities. Four of those benches honored founding board members who had fulfilled their board terms, Andy Brooks, Patti Hays (current CEO), Ben Eisbart and the late Ian Rolland.


Omnibus Lecture

How many people can say they’ve met an astronaut? We can! As part of their Omnibus Lecture Series, IPFW (now PFW) featured speaker Captain Mark Kelley. We couldn’t pass up a chance to hear him speak about his wife (Gabby Giffords) and how she became a person with a disability after an assassination attempt. As a sponsor of the lecture, we got a chance to meet Captain Kelley which was an opportunity of a lifetime. The most exciting part of the night, though, was hearing his story about how disability can happen to anyone at any time, and the strength of his wife to overcome her new life challenges.

Giving Tuesday

To represent our ten years of grant making, we gave local non-profit disability service providers a chance to receive $10,000 each. On Giving Tuesday, any new or increased donations they received were matched by AWS Foundation dollar for dollar. It was an exciting campaign and we gave away $44,727.61. Two organizations reached their fundraising goal to recieve the full $10,000!

Sensory Kits

Everyone deserves the opportunity to engage in community activities. For some this is difficult because the environment can be too bright, too noisy and overstimulating. We partnered with area venues to provide sensory kits at their guest services to check out during events. These kits are filled with items to help families of kids and adults with sensory sensitivities enjoy events they may otherwise avoid. Since our launch of the kits with the Coliseum, TinCaps and Embassy Theatre, we have received overwhelming gratitude and requests for the kits in other venues across Northeast Indiana.


Website Scavenger Hunt

Possibly the most exciting activity we did for our 10th Anniversary was our website scavenger hunt. We placed ten icons all over our website. When people found all ten icons, they were able to vote for their favorite nonprofit organization serving those with disabilities in Northeast Indiana. The organization with the most votes received $10,000 and 9 others received $1,000 each. The hunt went on for the entire month of May.  It was a close race and we loved seeing the daily changes in votes. This win-win game introduced more people to AWS Foundation as well as the organizations we support.

We had fun celebrating our 10th Anniversary for an entire year! Over the past ten years our organization has grown from one employee to seven, from 16 grantees to over 130, and from granting $300,000 per year to over $4 million per year. We are proud of the strides we’ve made for those with disabilities in Northeast Indiana, but more importantly, we are excited at what we know we can achieve in the future. Thanks to all of you who support our mission and follow along on this journey, stay tuned for what’s next.

From the CEO: Bravery

Maybe you’ve heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s philosophy: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

It served as my mantra on more than one fear-filled occasion, because there’s a lot of wisdom packed into that one sentence.  However, what Eleanor really said about fear was:

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.

You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”

The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence. You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

This month, 90 people got the chance to do just that – face their fears and do the thing they thought they could not! The mission, should they choose to accept it, was to rappel down a 14-story building, Tom-Cruise-style….

It was all to raise money for a good cause – GiGi’s Playhouse! GiGi’s playhouse, for those who don’t know, provides free educational and therapeutic programs for individuals with Down syndrome.

And while GiGi’s received corporate sponsorships for the mission, NO ONE from several of the sponsoring employers was willing to take the risk and participate.  So…when AWS Foundation was offered a spot, Eleanor’s words came to mind, and I accepted GiGi’s invitation.

Heights don’t bother me….falling, yes….but not heights. Roller coasters, high dives, bungee jumping are not in my purview of entertaining ideas, but rappelling is a controlled and safe descent.  I am all about control. I thought I could do it.

When I woke the morning of the event, I heard thunder and rain falling.  I will admit the thought that I had “dodged that bullet” occurred to me.  By 9:00AM, however, the rain had stopped and people began to descend.

I suited up: a harness, grappling lines, walkie talkie, gloves and helmet. I readied for my instructions. Lightening and storms meant we were nearly two hours behind schedule.  Again, I thought I might have received an 11th hour reprieve…  However, while I waited anxiously, I heard story after story of excitement from those who’d already rappelled. I could feel the adrenaline. Finally, we got the all clear.

I can do this!

Cameron, a young man with Down syndrome went before me.  He admired my Spider Man shirt. I admired his unwavering excitement.  He was the first to volunteer in our group to control his own lines and release the safety locks.  Bravely, he hoisted himself onto the wall of the room and showed us how it was done.  He shared the trip with a mentor who recorded the experience with her GoPro.  He got tired part way, he went too fast and his safety line locked, he radioed up for help and with encouragement finished the descent.  We weren’t allowed to look over the edge until it was our turn but I heard everyone cheering as he safely placed his feet on the ground below.

If you want to see more, from the safety of the ground, check out our video below.  This was a great fundraiser that also raised awareness of the great activities provided by Gigi’s, but there was much more to be gained.  I retold my story over the next few days and posted the picture on Facebook as I stepped off the edge of that building.  My take away was more than the pictures and bragging rights, however.  I learned so much more in watching the young man go before me.  His lesson for me applies to many other situations in life for those with disabilities who are trying to face a daunting challenge.

  • Be Prepared. Practice in a safe space where mistakes can be identified and corrected by those who care about your success.
  • Have a safety line. Even with the best practices, a back-up plan can help ensure a successful journey.
  • Take a break when you need it. Catch your breath, ask for help, and keep at it.
  • Share the journey. Any journey is better when shared.
  • Be sure to celebrate. We all have challenges in life.  Share in the successes of others and go ahead and brag so they can celebrate with yours.

I suspect years from now it won’t be my journey to the ground that will replay when I am faced with a challenge but rather the bravery of Cameron and how he exemplified the spirit of Eleanor’s words…

“Do one thing every day that scares you… even the thing you think you cannot do.”  This is the routine for many of those with disabilities.

From the CEO: Employment

Some restaurants provide seating with a clear view of the activities in the kitchen and, if available, these are the seats I always request.  To see so many people in a small space with clear choreographed roles is mesmerizing. Recently I had that opportunity and was awestruck to see a young man working the station in front of the fiery oven. He was moving back and forth between the computer screen posting orders, the prep area and his cook station. There was a reason he stood out from the rest of the white coated chefs: he had just one hand.
This young man removed hot casseroles to add ingredients and then reinsert to the flaming oven, managed a mandolin to slice vegetables, and moved dozens of entrees with precision. That restaurant had hired a skilled employee who kept pace with his peers.

In encouraging employers to consider hiring individuals with disabilities, Carol Glazer, CEO of National Organization on Disability, has said “If you think about people who have to navigate a world that was not built for them, you have to be a good problem solver.”  This chef was an amazing problem solver, such as using an insulated towel to balance hot plates on his elbow of his effected arm.

What businesses in Northeast Indiana have seen the same success? Who else looks to the talent pool of individuals with disabilities as a resource?  Through a recent grant from AWS Foundation to Greater Fort Wayne Inc. we hope to see that talent pool increase. By focusing on paid employment, internships and volunteer opportunities, GFW will work to open pathways to employment for people of all abilities.

Stephen Hawking, the recently deceased astrophysicist who spent his final decades of life in a wheelchair and was able to speak with only computer assistance because of ALS, was a visible advocate for those with disabilities being productive employees.  He said his research was possible because he was freed from the typical demands of classroom instruction in light that he couldn’t stand in front of a group of students and teach. In his introduction to a World Health Organization report on disabilities he said, “We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities.”

I invite you to join that same journey to remove barriers. If you are interested in learning more call Kevin Morse at GFW Inc.

TinCaps Game 2018

We had another fun day at Parkview Field cheering on the TinCaps with our friends. Over 1,000 people joined us for a TinCaps win! This annual game gives us a chance to meet the people we serve, making lasting connections. As a bonus, everyone gets out and has a great time. Thank you to all who joined us and we will see you again next year!

Family Voices Heart to Heart Conference

Join Family Voices Indiana for its 2018 Heart to Heart Conference, Friday, May 11, at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne. Heart to Heart is a day of learning and support for families of children and youth with special health care needs and the professionals who serve them. Conference topics include funding care and services, waivers, transition to adulthood, special education and more, all presented by parents with first-hand experience caring for a child with special needs. Attendees also will have time to network and visit exhibitors at the conference and AWS Foundation’s disABILITIES Expo. Register now, or email conference@fvindiana.org for more information.

9th Annnual disABILITIES Expo

Join us for the 9th annual disABILITIES Expo on Saturday, May 12th, 10am – 3pm. This year boasts the same fun with even more opportunities to learn about programs and services for those with disabilities in Northeast Indiana. You’ll find old favorites and new additions to enhance your experience. With performances, activities, art and exhibitor booths, there’s something there for the whole family.

Anyone can learn to play tennis with Turnstone’s tennis clinics. They will offer adaptive stand up tennis for those with physical disabilities, adaptive tennis for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities and wheelchair tennis. Our popular art exhibit and sale will feature beautiful work from many of our areas best artists with disabilities. You won’t want to miss performances by the many talented groups that come back every year. If you love animals, we always enjoy our favorite therapy dogs from Canine Companions and this year we are welcoming Mark’s Ark for a hands-on experience! Most importantly, we have over 110 exhibitors ready to tell you everything you need to know for a healthy, fully enriched life in our community for those with disabilities.

You can learn more at disabilitiesexpoindiana.org. Don’t miss your chance to have all of your resources in one place and enjoy a day with family, friends and lots of fun. We hope to see you there!

From the CEO: Labels

It was two months after my college graduation.  I was an RN on an orthopedic trauma floor and we received a call from the emergency room. They wanted to transfer us a patient with a broken femur…wanted to.  The problem? Bessie. She was 100 years old and putting up a fight.  My shift was scheduled to end soon, and a combative patient admission was not a welcome thought.  Still, we mobilized staff, got equipment, orders and everything we would need to provide care. We braced ourselves for a challenge.

Onto the floor came Bessie Gesheimmer…I will always remember her name.  As it turned out, her fight against the admission was really a fight to see the kick off of the Pitt v Penn State Game. And when she walked out of the hospital on a new hip, I was full of stories about her childhood in Germany.

That “100 year old Fx R hip” taught me about labeling and judgement.

When I went into her room, I expected to find a combative, agitated and (likely) senile patient with a hip fracture. I assumed she would have little likelihood of being discharged anywhere but a nursing home.  Instead, I found a gentle woman who, like me, loved the Pitt Panthers. We shared many of my lunch breaks. I heard about her immigration, her work in a family bakery, her children…and she kept me up to date on football scores during my shift.  We connected, and it turned out that we had a lot in common.

When we label someone blonde, short, boy or elderly, it can help us distinguish each other.  But with these names also comes personal histories, feelings and expectations.

What about labels like Quadriplegic?  Autistic?  Blind?  Disabled?  While they help define parameters for data collection, funding or interventions, they don’t define the individuals they name.

We measure each other, observing, comparing, ordering, sequencing.  Taller/shorter? Younger/Older?  But…how many of us want to be described by a single word?  For a person who has a disability, that single word (and all that is unspoken) limits and perpetuates the tyranny of low expectations.

I labeled Bessie as a “100 year old fractured hip” and prepared myself for the challenges that accompanied those words. Had I held that mindset, without being open to seeing more, I would have missed knowing one of my favorite patients in my nursing career.

May 12 is our ninth disABILITIES Expo at the Memorial Coliseum.  There is no single word to define what can be witnessed there. Vendors will provide options for enhancing abilities and maximizing attributes.  Entertainers will be defying stereotypes demonstrating amazing skills with music, dance and art.  Athletes will showcase their physical abilities.  It will be a welcoming and inclusive community that is 100% judgement free.

I think Bessie would have loved it. (GO PITT PANTHERS!)

Sensory Kits


AWS Foundation, in partnership with the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Embassy Theatre, Arts United and the Fort Wayne TinCaps to provide Sensory Friendly Kits at events to individuals of all ages with sensory needs.


Fort Wayne (March 28, 2018) – AWS Foundation, in collaboration with the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Embassy Theatre, Arts United and the Fort Wayne TinCaps, to provide sensory friendly kits at events available to individuals of all ages with sensory needs. The kits are designed to support individuals and families when attending events where loud noises, bright lights and unfamiliar surroundings can make it difficult to enjoy the experience. Sensory friendly kits are available to check out on request and are recycled for use by others at future events.


“Every member of our community should have equal opportunity to enjoy the many wonderful events and venues Fort Wayne has to offer,” says Tom O’Neill, AWS Foundation Board Chair. “For this to happen, individuals with sensory challenges need a variety of adaptive tools to help with loud noises, bright lights and close spaces. The goal of this sensory friendly kit is to provide much needed support to individuals and families so they can have the best possible experience when attending an event.”


Patti Hays, CEO of AWS Foundation states, “In celebration of AWS Foundation’s 10th Anniversary, we have developed these sensory friendly kits to advance efforts to be a fully inclusive community. While each partner venue is “ADA Compliant” it’s important to recognize that many disabilities do not affect physical access or mobility. To be inclusive and fully accessible, adaptive tools to support sensory needs are necessary. While we are kicking off the program in March as part of Disabilities Awareness Month, it’s important to understand and support the needs of those living with a disability every day of the year.”


Sensory friendly kits will be available beginning April 1st at Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Embassy Theatre, Arts United and the Fort Wayne TinCaps games along with many other events held at Parkview Field. Inquire at guest services to check out a kit. AWS Foundation sees this ongoing program as another opportunity to address unmet needs of individuals with disabilities in the community and hopes that participation will spread to other venues throughout the area.


Mike Nutter, TinCaps Team President stated, “When AWS Foundation approached us with this opportunity we were excited to have this resource available to our fans. We pride ourselves in being able to accommodate as many attendee needs as possible and this will be an important addition to what we’re able to offer at Parkview Field, thanks to the generosity of AWS Foundation.”


Sensory friendly kits contain noise reducing headphones, several small fidget items, a communications deck, identification wristband, a weighted comfort item and sanitizing wipes. Each item was chosen to answer needs identified by individuals and families when attending an event in a public venue.


“We are thrilled to be involved in this community-wide effort to make the guest experience more inclusive and friendly to those with sensory disabilities,” said Randy L. Brown, CVE, Executive Vice President & General Manager of the Memorial Coliseum. “Welcoming more than one million visitors per year to an extraordinary variety of events, we look forward to serving guests with these new kits.”


“The sensory friendly kits provide an invaluable support for families attending events at the Embassy Theatre. We are excited about this project and very thankful to AWS Foundation for creating the kits,” said John Hughey, Embassy Theatre’s Marketing Director.

New Faces

AWS Foundation has two new team members! PJ Thuringer, previously working for the City of Fort Wayne, is our new Real Estate Property Manager. He will help us ensure our homes are well maintained and up to date. Jenny Snyder joins us from East Allen County Schools as our new Program Officer. Taking on the Education & Employment, Transportation and Housing initiatives, Jenny is a valuable addition to our grantmaking process. If you see these two be sure to congratulate them on the new positions!

Our System Navigation Initiative

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show the occurrence of babies born with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities at 13.87%. Signs show that the number of cases being diagnosed with a disability is increasing compared to a decade earlier. While researchers work to understand how best to reduce risk factors, in most cases after diagnosis it is left up to parents to understand the options available to support their child’s needs. However, locating and understanding community resources and funding eligibility can be difficult under the best of circumstances. That’s why AWS Foundation has made system navigation a top initiative. We want to bridge the information gap bringing families, caregivers and support organizations together, creating more opportunities that could best improve health outcomes and quality of life.

Working with more than 40 families and 70-plus area service providers, we’ve continued to hear how they invest countless hours searching for information, placing calls and trying to network with others in similar situations. A number of non-profits spend a substantial amount of time maintaining information beyond the programs and services they provide. We believe that a comprehensive system designed to bring those individual efforts together under one umbrella is a more effective solution, saving everyone time and resources by bringing synergy to overcome challenges.

There are many great organizations working diligently to assist others to navigate the system. It’s an ever growing and expensive challenge with which many struggle. AWS Foundation’s greatest strength is funding. By championing the system navigation initiative, encouraging collaboration and reducing duplication of efforts, we believe establishing a vibrant online system with support staff presence to guide people to resources and information is within our grasp.

If you would like to learn more about the system navigation project, go to AWSFoundation.org/who-we-are/#priority_initiatives or contact Vicki Lee Johnson at vjohnson@awsfoundation.org.