Season for Sharing: Joseph Maley Foundation teaches kids about disabilities
The puppet show story goes like this: When 11-year-old Brenda learns that Ellen Jane has Down syndrome, she doesn't want her taking care of her dog at the vet.
Brenda quickly learns that she's wrong.
More than 100 third-graders were also learning alongside Brenda as they watched in silence in the audience at Washington Woods Elementary School.
"She learned that even if you have Down syndrome, you can still do things that people without Down syndrome can do," said Nora Paul-Blanc, a third-grader who watched the show that Joseph Maley Foundation put together.
That's the goal.
The foundation began more than a decade ago to help students understand people who live with disabilities and support them. The Indianapolis-based nonprofit offers programs about celebrating diversity — learning about people with different disabilities, mental health issues, gender identities and families — to school districts across Central Indiana.
These programs include a summer sports camp, racing events, puppet shows and speaker series. People often make wrong assumptions about people with disabilities, said Erica Christie, the director of education at the foundation.
And often, people don't look past the disabilities to see the people who have different interests, talents and skills.
"We talk a lot about how people with disabilities are often just as smart and capable," Christie said.
"A disability is just one part of you and people with disabilities are fully human, just like all of us," she said. "They can have interests and families and friendships and hold jobs and have kids."
The organization expanded to include mental health programming around 2016, after a string of teenage suicides. The students working with the foundation said they needed to help students cope with mental illnesses, stress and trauma.
"Nobody's talking at our schools about suicide," she remembers students telling her. "No one's teaching us how to take care of our mental health." So, the foundation began teaching elementary students how to talk and work through their feelings, including breathing exercises that lower stress.
These problems got worse during a pandemic where young people were isolated in quarantine, some with only a television as their babysitter.
"We're teaching kids strategies when you're feeling anxious, what can you do? When your thoughts are spiraling, how can you get them back in control," she said.
And in the last year, the foundation expanded to include programming about celebrating people of all gender identities and from different types of families.
Since the organization began in 2008, its program served some 275,000 students. Last year, the organization worked with some 45,000 students in 75 schools.
The students gathered around the stage had dozens of questions: What is a disability? Is it dangerous? Is it contagious? Where does it come from? Do all people have disabilities? Are you born with a disability? Can dogs have disabilities? Can all animals have disabilities?
And the students are eager to learn.
They listened as Ellen Jane explain that she was born with Down syndrome. But she can take care of Muffy the dog as well as anyone.
"You shouldn't assume people with Down syndrome can't do things because they have Down syndrome," Ellen Jane the puppet said to Brenda.
What is your organization's mission?
The mission of the foundation is to celebrate diversity and cultivate an inclusive community through education and other services for young people in the greater Indianapolis area.
How many people do you serve?
The organization worked with about 45,000 students last year.
What is your organization’s No. 1 need?
Donations. As a small organization, any additional funding helps. Visit josephmaley.org to give.
How can people get involved?
People who can talk about their disability are welcome to participate in the speaker series and should contact Kelly Bradbury at Kbradbury@josephymaley.org. Those who would like help organize and coordinate events should email the Executive Director Vivian Maley at Vmaley@josephymaley.org.
IndyStar Season for Sharing
The shared mission of IndyStar’s Our Children initiative and annual Season for Sharing campaign is to harness the power of journalism to make a difference in the lives of Central Indiana youth. We invite you to join us by making a financial contribution. The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust will match donations dollar-for-dollar, up to $25,000. All charitable donations are tax-deductible.
Funds raised during this year’s campaign will be distributed in early 2023 to organizations serving primarily Marion County youth and families.
Go to indystar.com/ocdonate to give online. If you prefer to send a check, please mail to: Central Indiana Community Foundation, Attn: Our Children, 615 N. Alabama St., Suite 300, Indianapolis, IN 46204. You also can donate by texting “SHARING” to 80888.
About the Joseph Maley Foundation
Mailing address: P.O. Box 681010, Indianapolis, IN 46268
Binghui Huang can be reached at 317-385-1595 and Bhuang@gannett.com.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Joseph Maley Foundation teaches kids about disabilities