New Year’s Resolution: Inclusion

Most of us have had the feeling that we didn’t belong at some time in our lives. Whether you were a gawky adolescent struggling to find your identity, or working in an environment in which your personality does not fit. For people in a minority group, this feeling is ever present. People feel isolated from society, especially individuals with disabilities. It is getting better, but we have a long way to go. AWS Foundation is dedicated to making Northeast Indiana an inclusive community for individuals with disabilities through advocacy and grantmaking.

ADA  requirements are the bare minimum a business or organization must do to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Yet people are still excluded. It takes special building design considerations like placing the elevator next to the stairs, programming that makes adjustments for those with special needs and advertising that includes individuals with disabilities without making them stand out. Science Central’s Special Abilities Days makes extra accommodations for sensory sensitivities such as lower noise levels, increased light in dim areas and extra staff create a safe and inviting environment for an enjoyable experience. The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership has done a fantastic job including individuals with disabilities in the diversity of their promotional materials.

With the creation of the City-County Disability Advisory Council, the greater Fort Wayne area is moving in the right direction for inclusion. We see a growing number of organizations making efforts each year. Our challenge for you in 2018 and beyond is to think about what you can do to create a more inclusive community. Feel free to run your ideas by us and together we can make a difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities.

2018 Board of Directors

Happy New Year!

AWS Foundation has much reason to tackle that deadly sin of pride when reflecting on some of our 2017 regional accomplishments. What follows are the highlights.

Inaugural County/City Disability Council:  Through the collaboration of the Northeast Indiana Disability Advocacy Coalition (NEIDAC) and government officials, the Disability Council for Allen County and the City of Fort Wayne was created. This group will strive to excel in accessibility and participation for all people with disabilities throughout the community.

Buddy Benches:  Ten area elementary schools now have playground buddy benches designed by area artists. The number of these will continue to grow annually as we help schools build an attitude of inclusion rather than bullying during recesses. To learn more about the Buddy Benches click here.

System Navigation: The process is well under way to establish an on-line navigation system that will guide families in finding answers to questions, access to services and assistance in ensuring optimal resources for individuals with disabilities. This complex process will see a beta test in 2018 as we move to an application that will service individuals, caregivers and providers throughout the region.

Giving Tuesday: $44,727 in matching funds was given to 9 disability nonprofit agencies as part of our first #GivingTuesday event. More great news was that 95% of the dollars came from NEW donors to the organizations!

Expanded land purchase at Camp Red Cedar: Two land parcels adjacent to Camp Red Cedar were purchased by AWS Foundation.  More than 20 acres will be available as this valuable day camp and year round equestrian program continues to serve in an inclusive capacity for years to come.

Special Needs Safety Kits for Children: Through the community efforts of the fire stations across Northeast Indiana, area provider agencies and the Developmental Clinics of Lutheran Health Network and Parkview Health, we are well on our way with the distribution of 2,000 safety kits.  These kits, assembled by special needs students learning job skills, contain information and aids to help with the safety of homes for the family with autism or other intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Canal boat christening: Friends of the Rivers launched Sweet Breeze this spring, a canal boat providing river views of the city paired with historical perspectives.  Through a grant from AWSF, Sweet Breeze is fully accessible with a flat entrance from the dock and a bathroom large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Look for it returning to the rivers in the spring.

Riverfront groundbreaking: Sweet Breeze will also provide a great view of the developing Riverfront park.  Through work with developers and input from individuals with a variety of disabilities, this park has been designed with an emphasis on inclusion.  A few features are a supported lawn base to allow full wheelchair access of the entire lawn space; all bathrooms are handicap accessible; accessible playground equipment; and electronic interface for all signage.

Record grant giving amounts:  2017 saw $4,607,730 in grants awarded to 86 grantees.  These grants have helped individuals with disabilities become more involved in the expansion of the region. More social venues were welcoming. More job training opportunities were provided. Agencies that provide vital daily services for maximum inclusion and independence were able to expand their reach.


Buddy Bench in honor of Ian Rolland, created by Justin Johnson

We can’t let the reflection of the past year finish without mentioning the passing of a founding board member. Ian Rolland was integral to the concept of AWS Foundation’s formation when it was just an idea in 2006. He continued as an active board member until June 2016. His service to AWSF was memorialized in one of the first buddy benches that can be found at Forest Park Elementary School.  Ian’s challenge to all of us to be not just aware of the community in which we live but to be willing to get involved in social issues has contributed to Northeast Indiana being a more inclusive community for people of all abilities. Let us all honor his memory by taking a more active role in creating an inclusive community this year, and for many more years to come.

Captain Mark Kelly

Disability can happen to anyone at any time of their life. This fact was evident when Captain Mark Kelly spoke about his wife’s (congresswoman Gabby Giffords) traumatic brain injury which was caused by an assassination attempt in 2011. His inspiring words captivated a sold out Rhinehart Music Center at IPFW on October 12th, co-sponsored by AWS Foundation as part of our 10th anniversary celebration. As advocates of the disability community, we share his message of endurance and determination to achieve success.

CEO, Patti Hays & Board Chair, Tom O’Neill with Captain Kelly

Captain Kelly’s eloquent tale of his space travels intertwined with his wife’s political career impacting their lives in an unpredicted way. Their story encompassed overcoming fear and obstacles to reach goals. His thought provoking message reflected on his aspiration to be the first person to travel to Mars and his satisfaction in all he achieved working toward that goal. Fighting in a war and traveling to space twice, though statistically more dangerous than serving in a political office position, turned out safer than his wife’s career. He professed his pride in his wife’s drive to cast her vote in congress on an important issue, mere months after her injury, to make one last impact before she left office.  Sharing their lives after her injury shed light on the challenges families face with a disability diagnosis and shows what optimism and determination can achieve in the face of adversity.

Honored to host such an engaging speaker, we thank everyone who joined us that night. May Captain Kelly’s words serve as motivation to overcome your own obstacles and stay optimistic in times of distress.

Season of Giving

In November we start to wind down the year and plan for the holiday season. It’s a time for shopping for that perfect gift, meals around the table with family and, hopefully, charitable giving. Giving Tuesday, which happens on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, is a global campaign to promote philanthropy. As part of our yearlong 10th Anniversary celebration, AWS Foundation is participating in Giving Tuesday with $110,000 in matching dollars.

We chose 11 nonprofit disability service providers, each to receive a dollar-for-dollar match up to $10,000! These organizations are: Arc of Noble CountyArc of LaGrange, Arc of Wabash, Bi-County Services (Bluffton), Carey Services (Marion), Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana, Life Adult Day Academy (Fort Wayne), Passages (Columbia City), Pathfinder Services (Huntington), RISE, Inc. (Angola), Turnstone (Fort Wayne).

To qualify for matching funds, donations must be:

  • Given on Tuesday, November 28th 2017 (either in person or electronically)
  • New or increased donations. This means if you have given to your chosen organization before, only those incremental dollars will be matched.

These organizations change the lives of individuals with disabilities in Northeast Indiana and we want to help them. This is your chance to give to a new organization or increase your annual donation. Give what you can, every dollar helps.

“Beam Me Up, Scotty”

This iconic command from Captain Kirk in the 1960’s Star Trek series quickly became a favorite catchphrase.  Getting “beamed up” to the Starship Enterprise meant a speedy escape from unfriendly aliens armed with powers and weapons to destroy the Enterprise and its crew.  Aside from the humorous notions of earthlings using the command to escape their own undesirable situations, it did serve as an intriguing vision of future transportation.

Back on earth, transportation options are increasing – think Lyft, Uber and self-driving cars – yet six million people with disabilities are still unable to access transportation for their basic needs, according to the most recent government transport survey conducted in 2003. The Americans with Disabilities Act provided equality for riders but only for public transport:  all new vehicles used for public transit must be accessible, transit operators must provide paratransit services for individuals who cannot use available mass transit, and existing rail stations and all new rail stations and facilities must be accessible.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that everyone takes transportation for granted and is usually the last thing we think about, if we think about it at all.

E.B. White, the author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, said, “Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.” As we advocate for inclusive employment, social and recreational opportunities, transportation has to be central to the conversation. Not just the accessibility but also affordability.  Allen County’s transportation services for the disability community are good but keeping up with ridership demand is an ongoing challenge.  Citilink’s Access service projects 58,000 passenger trips in 2017 in addition to 22,000 trips departing from the fixed routes.  An alternative to mass transit is CTN, providing 50,000 passenger trips annually for 3,800 individuals unable to access public transportation.  Federal funding cuts in all transportation programs make service expansion difficult, if not impossible, especially in rural communities.

Local taxi services, along with Lyft and Uber drivers using accessible vehicles, can help meet the demand however, there are too few and the costs are often unaffordable.  Self-driving cars offer the next best solution to meeting ridership capacity and hopefully, are also affordable.  Disability and transportation advocates have been working with companies on accessible design such as style of door handles, floor height, lighting, ramps, lifts, voice-activated navigation and communication systems to accommodate individuals with any type of disability.

The future is promising for how quickly people with disabilities will get to where they want to go, and when they want to go.  Scotty – we may not need you after all.

Patti Hays

From the CEO: Transportation

Earlier this year I visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and learned a little more of the story of the Wright Brothers and their first flight.  That initial flight of just 852 feet opened the door to a rapid evolution of not just flight but discovery of a freedom through a new means of transportation.   One cannot look at the news today and not see stories that center on transportation.  There are stories about travel to Mars with SpaceX’s Elon Musk as well as the promise of autonomous (self-driving) vehicles. We also viewed the devastation of Puerto Rico when, without transportation, there was no way to distribute supplies after Hurricane Irma.

Transportation and specifically travel are synonymous with freedom and independence. Slaves could not have traveled without the necessary papers.  Loss of driving privileges for the elderly has been linked with serious depression and suicides.  For the person with a disability access to transportation is life transforming.  Whether it is walking, public transit or vehicle travel, transportation is the access to work, shopping, recreating, socialization and medical and spiritual care.  One third of people with disabilities have NO public transit available to them. For too many the biggest barrier to work is dependable transportation.  For too many there is no sense of freedom.

Northeast Indiana has a mixture of urban and rural areas with varying transportation options.  With more than 100 miles of trails (for those with the ability) shopping, churches and socialization may be a little more accessible.  Public transit and paratransit with Citilink and CTN in Allen County and regional providers in surrounding counties are invaluable as they provide access to planned medical care and events.  Spontaneous opportunities or sudden changes of plans, however, can be problematic.  For the person where income isn’t a problem, there are significantly less transportation problems…but those are not the routine.

In 1800, a trip from NYC to Indiana would have taken five weeks on horseback.  In just 50 years, that was trimmed to just two days as trains were introduced. Now, astronauts circle the globe in about 90 minutes. AWS Foundation dreams of an evolutional change to provide the freedom of transportation for the person with a disability.  The promise of autonomous vehicles will be truly transformational if we can overcome the barrier of cost.

The United States, one of the only countries with the ability to put people in space does not even rank in the top ten globally for public transportation. The country that can have an astronaut seeing two sunrises and sunsets in an hour and a half, can surely find a consistent, reliable and responsive means to get a person from home to a destination to see that same sunset or movie and experience some sense of independence.

The Best Prize

Remember when you landed your first job?

If you were a high school student, you probably didn’t have much work experience, if any, but that didn’t matter. You were willing to work, the business was willing to hire you because there were job openings and you would get on-the-job training.  Applying for the job was easy. Fill out the application in person, maybe an interview was required and shortly the phone call or letter came. Now think about what influenced your decision to accept the job. Immediate need for money, your parents told you to get a job, or you had a career goal and pursued a specific job.

Self-employment might have been an option such as mowing yards, babysitting, cleaning houses or setting up a lemonade stand. Family and friends likely were encouraging supporters both financially (by hiring you) and emotionally by telling you that “whatever you set your mind to you could do it.”

If you were a high school student with a disability (intellectual or physical), would you have had the same opportunities and support? You were willing to work, jobs were plentiful and on-the-job training was available. Then barriers appear – completing the application was challenging, as was the interview. Add to that skepticism from others on your ability to do the job or becoming an entrepreneur.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Far and away the best prize life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities, employment rates have not risen significantly in spite of appropriate accommodations in the workplace, accessibility to buildings, schools and public transportation. In the 90’s the employment rate of individuals with disabilities was 50.2% compared to 84.4% without disabilities. However, the recession took its toll on any progress as the first to lose jobs were those with disabilities.

Given our country’s current robust economy the employment outlook is, not surprisingly, encouraging. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Report for July 2017 indicated 33.1% of people with disabilities were working yet the unemployment rate tells a different story – the number of individuals with a disability looking for work is twice that of individuals without a disability.

As Indiana approaches a near historically low 3% unemployment rate, “we are hiring” signs are everywhere. But who are we hiring?

A key initiative of AWS Foundation is advancing Education and Employment for individuals of all ages and abilities. We believe linking education and employment helps ensure that students with disabilities acquire skills to be successful in the workplace – counting money, placing an order, telling time, learning a work process, taking public transportation, engaging in informal conversation or problem-solving, describing a situation or issue. In-school experiences coupled with community experiences reinforce learning and help students identify potential careers. Such job-readiness activities close the experience gap for jobs posted “no experience necessary.” Grants supporting several organizations in northeast Indiana are becoming models for how to best teach these skills, track progress and ultimately place graduates in jobs.

So, what can you do to give a person with a disability the best prize life has to offer? How about that first job…

Want to explore hiring individuals with a disability?  Several new efforts are underway to connect employers with organizations providing training and placement. Let us know how we can help.



Patti Hays

From the CEO: Education

When I was born in the time of poodle skirts and Elvis Presley, infants born with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD) were often institutionalized or perhaps remained at home under the care of a family member. Since the advent of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) in 1990, we now see more than 90% of those born with ID/DD go on to a mainstream education in public schools.

Since 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that “states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to the more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.” Amended in 2015, this law states that “Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”
I am hopeful that Indiana’s recent commitment of funds for pre-school education as well as enhanced career and technical education funding will result in better outcomes for the more than 32,000 special education students across the state in achieving those educational results. AWS Foundation is proud to provide grants to some of the schools in Northeast Indiana to try to augment those already stretched state and local funds.

We have some wonderful elementary education teachers out there who are trying with outstanding fortitude to see every one of their students make progress with each school year towards that goal of full participation and economic self-sufficiency. Yes…they work towards those goals with all students in primary grade school.

That vision for possibility starts far earlier than high school graduation. Every person has a dream and a vision for what the future holds for them. Each child deserves the same message and vision of a life as a contributing member of a community; that learning is lifelong; and that they have potential. The “tyranny of low expectation” has held back too many from independence, friends, income and a feeling of self-worth.

There has been recent discussion of whether or not to enforce IDEA (yes, it is a law and thus needs to be enforced). This is a civil right for these young students and not an “irritating problem” as some would suggest. Students who are in diverse classrooms are more likely to grow to adults welcoming and appreciative of diversity. Our communities are better when all members are invited to participate as they are able. We have seen great progress in my lifetime but imagine “What are the possibilities?”

AWS Foundation Announces $504,708 in Grants

Fort Wayne, IN ─ The AWS Foundation recently awarded $504,708 in grants to 18 non-profit organizations that benefit individuals with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities in Northeast Indiana. These organizations include:

Achieva Resources: $70,000 for the Guardianship Program.

Audiences Unlimited: $13,910 to pilot a Music Enrichment program at Life Adult Day Academy.

Carey Services: $13,250 matching grant for vehicle purchase and accessibility modifications.

Churubusco Elementary School: $12,500 for classroom sensory kits.

Coesse Elementary School: $10,000 for sensory room.

Community Transportation Network (CTN): $23,264 matching grant for two lift-equipped vehicles.

GiGi’s Playhouse: $27,500 for a career development program.

Huntington University: $35,000 for the ABLE program.

Joe’s Kids: $25,000 for operating support.

Magical Meadows: $15,000 for the therapeutic riding program.

Mental Health America: $30,000 for Kids on the Block; $75,000 for Volunteer Advocates for Seniors and Incapacitated Adults (VASIA) program.

Pathfinder Services: $12,500 for Creative Abundance program.

RSVP of Allen County: $25,000 for I CAN volunteer program.

Scherer Resources: $30,000 for vocational training and job placement program.

The League: $20,000 for Youth Services program.

Trine University: $36,000 for medical dispenser market research.

University of Saint Francis: $5,784 for Jesters’ North Campus Auditorium sound board.

Visiting Nurse: $25,000 for patient care and grief services.

AWS Foundation donates Buddy Benches to area schools to promote friendship for all people of all abilities in celebration of their 10th Anniversary.

Fort Wayne (August 10, 2017) – AWS Foundation, in celebration of their 10th Anniversary, will donate ten buddy benches to area schools to promote friendship for all people of all abilities. The buddy bench, combined with an education program, teaches children the importance of inclusion. Each bench displays an original design created by a local artist to honor four of the foundation’s founding board members: Ian Rolland, Ben Eisbart, Andy Brooks and Patti Hays.

“As we celebrate our 10th anniversary, it is important to recognize and honor the work done by several of the foundation’s founding board members as they retire from the board. With the community’s recent loss of Ian Rolland, this recognition seemed even more poignant,” says Tom O’Neill, AWS Foundation Board Chair. “Without their vision and leadership, AWS Foundation wouldn’t exist. They have helped thousands of people with disabilities in northeast Indiana.”

While it is common for any child to go through at least some period of social discomfort, studies show that children with intellectual and developmental disabilities tend to be less accepted by their peers, struggle more in social situations and experience feelings of isolation for extended periods. The buddy bench is a simple concept that has been adopted by educators around the world to support social acceptance.

“When a child feels lonely, they sit on the buddy bench to let others know they want someone to play with,” Patti Hays, CEO of AWS Foundation states. “Fellow students playing in the area see someone on the bench and know to ask them to play. It’s an easy way for kids to connect and make friends.”

Teachers spend countless hours in the classroom helping children improve academically. A buddy bench program helps educate children on the importance of acceptance, peer support and inclusion when they are at recess.