What's Happening in Character?

Increasing Empathy & Disability Awareness through Project HEART

Posted by Kim Dailey on Mon, Mar 21, 2016 @ 07:03 AM

Lindbergh_HighSchool_photo1.jpgby Kim Dailey, Special School District Educator, Lindbergh Schools

Thirty-one years of classroom teaching has taken me from my home in the Midwest, to the East Coast, to the West Coast, and home again. Today I’m very fortunate to live in one caring community and work in yet another.  I see evidence of this care in my school every day. Though I am employed by Special School District of St. Louis County, I provide special education services at Lindbergh High School and have been actively involved in the district’s character education initiatives for many years. As a special education teacher and the parent of an adult son with autism, my heart is in developing opportunities for disability awareness.  I have seen firsthand the value of a caring community in the life of my son, Zachary, and in the lives of my students.

Several years ago, an assistant principal at my school approached me about organizing a disability awareness event sponsored by former NFL player, Kurt Warner and his wife Brenda’s First Things First Foundation.  I had no experience in organizing such an event but couldn’t resist the opportunity.

The Warner’s CHEER (Consciousness Helps Encourage Equal Respect) program is a week-long event that allows student volunteers to take on a physical disability for a day.  Each day for four days, 25 different students wear low vision goggles, noise blocking headsets, and arm slings.  Others are confined to a wheelchair or carry a whiteboard to communicate without speaking.

At the end of our CHEER week, Kurt and Brenda, along with their own son, Zachary, personally addressed our entire school at an assembly.  The gymnasium held nearly 2,000 people, but was silent, as the Warner’s shared their personal journey with their son who has physical disabilities related to an injury sustained in infancy.  Student volunteers who had spent a day in someone else’s shoes were interviewed about their experiences on stage.  Stories ranged from kindnesses demonstrated when students struggled, to feeling invisible when participants were excluded from conversation.  Both positive and negative experiences gave all a real sense of what many face every day.

The experience was so impactful that when I realized the Warner’s schedule would not allow for future personal appearances, I decided to replicate it.  This seemed daunting since I don’t have the wow factor that comes with the Warner’s but I pressed ahead. Our Mothers’ Club generously granted me $500 so I could purchase the needed equipment, minus the wheelchairs.  Wings of Hope filled in the gap with donations of wheelchairs so that we would be able repeat the program regularly.  Fashioned after CHEER, Project HEART (Helping Encourage Acceptance Respect & Teamwork), was born.

To manage this without a school-wide celebrity draw, I worked with our health teachers to create an event that would complement their curriculum.  Because health class is required for graduation, this would ensure every student has opportunity to participate.  Instead of a celebrity guest at the end of the week, we held a summit of health classes in the auditorium where student volunteers were interviewed on stage about their experiences.  Paraquad, a community organization that works with adults with disabilities, also presented at the summit. They discussed their role in the community, gave tips on relating with those with physical disabilities, and showcased opportunities for community service.

If your school is looking for an opportunity to raise awareness to develop your own caring community, you might start by checking out the CHEER Program video that was created at our Lindbergh High School event with the Warners.

Next, consider what your own event might look like.  Whether you’d like to try Project HEART or create your own event, unique to your school, you have the opportunity to create a forum for understanding that will impact your community for years to come.

Best wishes in all you do, and if I can be of assistance please contact me at kdailey@lindberghschools.ws.

 

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Topics: empathy, Caring Classrooms,, Kindness,, Caring Community