University of Kansas senior Jennifer Salva of Olathe has learned a lot over the years from her younger sister Erin. But the most important lesson Erin has taught her is about acceptance.
Erin, who is 18, was born deaf and with developmental delays. Now Salva, who was recently crowned Miss Topeka, is using the lessons that Erin has taught her to form a platform she calls Meaningful Inclusion. She will promote her platform when she competes this June in the Miss Kansas pageant.
“This is about people with special needs being a functional and meaningful part of their community,” Salva said.
Salva said she feels like people with developmental disabilities haven’t always had a lot of opportunities socially and in the job market. That’s why she was so encouraged when she discovered and started volunteering for the organization Inclusion Connections.
Inclusion Connections is an Olathe-based nonprofit organization that serves individuals with developmental disabilities. It was co-founded by Debbie Horn and Josie Strickler, both parents of children with developmental disabilities.
“My son Matthew is 17 and has Down syndrome,” Horn said. “He is strongly voicing his desire to get a job and live independently. He wants the same things as everyone else and as a mom I realize that I am going to have to help him.”
Horn hopes to help Matthew by helping to transform her community into one that is more inclusive of individuals with developmental disabilities. She hopes her organization can help open the door to future employers by educating them so that they will consider hiring individuals like her son.
“I have found that if you open the door and do that education, they are ready to take that next step — which may be to become a better friend to Matthew or hire him when he walks in the door,” Horn said.
Part of the process for setting up future employment options is to connect developmentally disabled individuals with peers in social settings. Horn does that by pairing teen mentors together with developmentally disabled young people for fun activities like bowling, mini golf and holiday-themed parties around Halloween and Christmas.
Just through word-of-mouth she has had 43 peer mentors volunteer. But she needs more. Inclusion Connections currently has 60 families of developmentally disabled students in Johnson County involved in the organization.
Horn wants to get the word out to young people that if you are 13 or older, your help is needed as a teen mentor. Based on her past experience with current volunteers, Horn doesn’t believe that it will be that hard to convince more young people to get involved with her organization.
“Every time after an event mentors always say to me, ‘I had a blast. When are you doing your next activity?’ ”
For her part, Salva is doing her best to raise awareness about Inclusion Connections while working toward her pageant goals. Salva asked Horn’s son Matthew to be her escort during the evening wear competition in the Miss Topeka pageant last month.
“He was such a perfect gentleman and I think I had the best escort up there,” Salva said.
Horn knows the extra exposure that Salva is providing through her pageant platform will help spread the word about the importance of community inclusion for developmentally disabled individuals.
“I’m so excited about the idea of her taking this platform throughout the state of Kansas,” Horn said. “Any time we get our platform of advocating for individuals with disabilities out there, it’s a great thing. We are thrilled.”