Providing a more inclusive environment for students with special needs

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URL: Instagram: nonprofit.aware Facebook:

Date Started

March / 10 / 2017

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Start-Up (first few activities have happened)

1. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project? NOTE: All applications must include a 1 minute video that answers: “I am stepping up to make change because..."

When my friend first asked me to help babysit her sister I was wary. Like everybody else, not only did I underestimate Samantha, but I also subconsciously feared her. Yet after spending only three months with her, I realized just how wrong I was. Like any other child, Samantha loves Oreos and watches Disney Channel. Since she suffers from severe autism, she has an exceptionally difficult time communicating how she feels and can become frustrated. Samantha made me understand that children with special needs have numerous obstacles to overcome. As a proud hijabi, I am often subject to stereotypes, and am very vocal about truly understanding who someone is before passing any judgement. Yet, I cannot even imagine how it feels to be boxed in by society without an explanation, simply hoping for someone to understand. I will be forever grateful to Samantha.

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Picture this: no matter what you say, no one is listening. No matter how you try to talk, no one understands what you are saying. Every time you want to explore, everyone tries to stop you. People are constantly shying away from you, and tiptoeing around you. It is in this atmosphere that people with special needs attempt to function every second of their lives, and it is this atmosphere that Aware is committed to changing.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Aware provides general education teens with the materials and training necessary to open an associated club at their school. The club has both special and general education members and does a variety of activities together: holding information sessions about what a special need is, eating lunch, going to sporting events, doing arts and crafts, and generally making the special education students feel more included in school activities. Through Aware, students with special needs have a way to participate in activities that are a large part of the high school experience, but often unavailable to them. This includes going to major events, like homecoming and prom, and monthly occurrences, like spirit weeks. In addition, through Aware general education students have the opportunity to learn more about special needs and how to promote a more inclusive environment.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of what happens when a person or group gets involved with your project.

When a general education student becomes involved with AWARE, they can learn how to promote a more inclusive environment for students with special needs. Comparatively, when a student with special needs joins Aware they have the opportunity to take part in activities otherwise unavailable to them. One specific example of this mutual learning happened at the Redmond High Chapter. Just after spending one lunch together and talking about their favorite color and hobbies, a general and special education student formed a friendship. Today, the special needs student remembers the name of the general education student and they walk to first period together. Through Aware the general education student realized she could talk to the student with special needs just like any of her friends and the special education student got to form a bond with someone he otherwise would not have met.

5. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

Other organizations are advocating for people with special needs in the government, providing them with financial resources, and offering a support network they can rely on for help. None of them are focused on providing people with special needs a more friendly everyday social environment in schools. In addition, Aware is run by teens from the top down, unlike other organizations that do not even involve the youth. By including high schoolers, Aware is simultaneously assisting students with special needs and providing teens with an opportunity to serve their community and take lead.

6. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

In one year Aware has impacted the lives of over 250 students across 4 high schools. By the end of this year, we will have presented to students in 10 different high schools. We have also gained confirmation from 5 additional schools that they plan to start the process for opening an Aware chapter in September of 2018. In each school Aware expands to it starts a movement and the best example of this is Redmond High School. Prior to the Aware club, many of my own friends avoided the special education wing, treating it as some forbidden, fearful place. Now the entire school’s atmosphere has changed. There are posters for the spirit week hung up in the wing and every month there is a luncheon where general and special education students sit together. Though there are still some awkward moments, Aware has definitely opened the dialogue.

7. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

Taking Aware to the next level has two components: how each club can be more effective in promoting an inclusive environment and expanding Aware to more schools. For the clubs to be more successful, we are working on coding an app that helps remove some of the awkwardness when general education students interact with students who have special needs. The app will be similar to a guidebook, giving the symptoms of different special needs as well as conversation topics and activities to do with the student. In terms of expansion, our goal for next year is opening Aware chapters in 10 new schools all across Washington state, including the Eastern side. We will use the same process as this year, finding interested teens by presenting to schools.

8. Future Support: What are the resources needed to make your vision a reality?

As of right now, Aware has expanded to other schools solely through emails and phone calls to teachers. As a high school student myself I know that informing other teenagers through teachers about this organization is not the best method. Though Aware meetings happen at school, there purpose is to provide a platform to ensure that the general and education students can get to know each other and most of all have fun! Unfortunately, school is not always correlated with fun so ideally teens would see Aware as more than just part of school. However, we have been struggling to promote this view because we are unsure of how to create an effective marketing strategy. Through this challenge we hope to gain the resources needed to solve this issue.

9. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations between $100-$1k

10. Ripple Effect: Please share some ideas of how you could partner with other changemakers or involve other young people as leaders in making a difference.

We are excited to have the opportunity to form more connections like we have been in the past year. Aware is an organization run by teens from the top down. For our next step we are specifically looking for young changemakers to bring Aware to their schools! In addition, in the past year we have repeatedly seen the importance of learning from others - it was one of the special education students who recommended we code the Aware app - so we are thrilled to have the opportunity to receive more ideas and guidance from others! As for how we have obtained our connections thus far, to tell you the truth, it’s simply matter of approaching someone, even if it is electronically. Our advisory board is made up of teachers we talked to after school or adults we approached at the end of events and other competitions. In terms of the schools, our first emails rarely ever got a response, but with perseverance (AKA 2 more emails and a phone call) we were almost always able to succeed.

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Social media

Evaluation results

5 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 80%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 0%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 20%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. - 0%

2. Changemaker Quality

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 100%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 0%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

3. Creativity

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 40%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 40%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 20%

No Answer - 0%

4. Commitment

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 100%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 33.3%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 33.3%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

No Answer - 0%

5. Connection

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 60%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 20%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 20%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

No Answer or No Connection - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Shabab

This is amazing! I hope y'all win.

Photo of Sarah

Thank you!

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