“I can tell you the statistics,” says Patti Hays, CEO. “We can talk about the number of people with disabilities living below the poverty line in Northeast Indiana or the percentages of specialized students in our local schools. I can point out how the number of unemployed people with disabilities far outpaces the general population, or the number of people with disabilities who never see anyone outside of their paid support staff. But numbers don’t change lives,” she says. “Stories do.”
Founded in 2007, AWS Foundation has been focused on the stories of those children and adults who have enduring intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. The foundation’s goal is best expressed through a single imperative: Think differently about disabilities. It’s a command outlined in a daring hope that when we think differently, we will also see differently.
“These people may have disabilities, but that doesn’t take away their desire to live independently, to have their own social lives, their own friends,” says Hays.
Knowing that many of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities depend on family members for support, it’s not hard to understand the importance of AWS Foundation’s work. If you’re looking for palpable examples, just ask the families who can now visit places like the Civic Theater or Science Central with less worry. Specially produced shows and exhibits make it easier for these families to experience the arts and the sciences—lights are dimmed; sounds are adjusted, and kids with sensory challenges aren’t expected to stay put. “For many families, the idea of attending a show isn’t possible because of sensory disorders, but we’ve found that with awareness and simple changes in design, a whole new level of accessibility can open up,” says Hays.
Those changes have extended into places like specialized camps, area schools, playgrounds, and even the Riverfront Development. Recently, small design changes helped a local YMCA eliminate barriers for those with disabilities so they could participate in programming with their families.
Recounting story after story, Hays says if the Foundation has learned anything through these initiatives, it’s that great change can never happen on its own. “The partnerships we have with other organizations are invaluable,” she says.
And that idea of community partnerships changing neighborhoods is something that NeighborLink has been echoing since its founding. When Hays heard Andrew Hoffman share NeighborLink’s message in 2015, she knew that she had found a like-minded partner. After the event, Hays approached Hoffman and carried one message: “We have to find a way to work together.”
Throughout the next weeks and months, Hoffman worked to do just that, identifying ways that NeighborLink’s work connected to AWS Foundation. By 2016, his efforts paid off big time when AWS Foundation awarded NeighborLink a $25K grant. The following year, their generosity to NeighborLink poured out again as they awarded another $30K in grant funding.
“Widening doorways, adding wheelchair accessible ramps, providing regular home maintenance—all are projects that go into a normal day’s work for any NeighborLink volunteer, but for AWS, those projects stand as representations of empowerment for those who are living more independently with disabilities,” says Hays.
“The great thing about NeighborLink is that you get this tremendous experience, and you can do it alongside your coworkers, friends and neighbors,” she says. “NeighborLink has found that perfect intersection of that sense of community and giving that resonates with today’s younger generations. I would encourage NeighborLink as a wonderful first step because when you go in and get that person who smiles and says thank you, that’s the crack for future volunteerism.”