After volunteering for The IDEA Project a number of years ago, Melissa Danielli was so moved by the vital program that she wanted to bring it to Mercer Island.
Her idea came to fruition this month when she and a multitude of others presented and volunteered during a week-long series of classes for Northwood Elementary School students focused on Interactive Disability Education Awareness (IDEA) that the nonprofit organization has tailored for each grade level.
Created by Allison Bureau of Maple Valley, whose son has special needs, the project’s mission is “to create understanding and empathy by educating students about differences and different abilities,” according to its website.
Examples of activities at hands-on learning stations were seeing if students could read a set of jumbled words like someone with dyslexia might see them, picking up objects while wearing big gloves to simulate how kids with fine motor delays might access them and more, according to Danielli.
“We always want to make sure that people know that the kids weren’t trying on a disability. They were just learning about a situation that a person with a disability might face to understand what that situation might be like,” said Danielli, an Island resident with five children, including an 11-year-old daughter with language and learning disabilities. “They can do it. But it takes a little bit longer and (students need) to have a little bit of patience to give them.”
The IDEA Project was introduced to the community by the Special Services and Learning Differences (SSALD), a district-wide program that represents parents of kids with disabilities, said Danielli, who is a SSALD representative as well as vice president of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) at Islander Middle School. The school district partially funded bringing The IDEA Project to the Island and SSALD also received a large grant from the Mercer Island Schools Foundation.
A combined 50 high school students and parents volunteered during the Northwood IDEA sessions, which will continue at the end of March at Island Park Elementary and move over to Lakeridge and West Mercer elementaries in April.
Danielli, who formerly taught special education on the East Coast, said she heard it was a powerful and positive experience for those involved at Northwood.
“The kids from my time there really were responding extremely well to everything. You could see they were having a lot of those sort of light-bulb moments of really understanding, like, ‘OK, I can get that,’” she said.
Added Jennifer Crespi, a SSALD council representative: “We wanted to bring The IDEA Project to Mercer Island schools in order to help create an environment of acceptance and inclusion. In parallel, we also wanted to demonstrate that all individuals may contribute to our community and help in making Mercer Island a pillar of societal and educational excellence.”
Another SSALD rep Jessi Biagi, whose son is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum, said it was heartwarming when copious Northwood students shared their own learning differences with their classmates during the recent program.
Like Bureau did as the seeds to The IDEA Project were being sown, Biagi enters her son’s classes each year to discuss sensory and communication challenges with his fellow students and informs them that her boy enjoys many of the same things they do.
“After my visits, the kids are open and welcoming to my son and invite and encourage him to play — because there is no more mystery and no more fear surrounding the unknown. And because they felt some empathy for how hard my son has to work to do some of the things that come easily to them,” Biagi said.
To bring high schoolers on board to help lead the project, Danielli and her partners connected with several diversity groups, including the Jeniffer Blaser-coordinated Unified Sports program. Two student volunteers, Taven Glennon-Mulien and Cortez Smith, are Unified Sports partners who ran stations and interacted with Northwood students.
For Glennon-Mulien, it was an eye-opening opportunity to gain awareness of the students’ learning disabilities and challenges during the important project.
“It is beneficial for students to understand learning disabilities while they are young and have it in their system so they are more experienced with people who learn differently and are more accepting,” Glennon-Mulien said.
Smith added: “Being there and having first-hand knowledge of students’ learning gave me the opportunity to see what students are experiencing and help the younger generations.”
On a personal level, Danielli hopes that through her involvement in the project people will learn to be a bit more patient with her daughter.
“She has been so fortunate that she’s had a group of friends that have really embraced her from the time she was in kindergarten,” she said.
Bureau explained how her project has taken flight and made a positive impact in schools: “The growth of this project has been remarkable, as more and more schools recognize the importance of fostering inclusivity and respect in their classrooms. By promoting empathy and reducing stigma, The IDEA Project is making a real difference in the lives of students, and helping to create a more compassionate and accepting society.”
For more information about The IDEA Project, visit https://theideaproject.org/