Five years ago, Debbie Horn’s son, Matthew was nearing the finish of his high school years at Olathe South. Though Matthew’s hopes, dreams, and goals for the future had much in common with his friends and fellow students, his opportunities to fulfill those looked very different.
“Matthew has Down syndrome,” said his mother, Debbie Horn. “After high school, there were limited options for him to participate in community life. He needed a social life, a job and wanted to live independently. None of those things was going to happen on their own.
“I knew he needed intervention — and so did his peers with special needs.”
Horn decided she would be the one to intervene, not only for her son but for others with special needs in the community. In 2013, this visionary entrepreneur launched Inclusion Connections.
“Typically, when students with developmental disabilities graduate from high school, they can go into a government-based day service, or it’s up to parents to figure it out,” Horn said.
Thanks to Horn and Inclusion Connections, these parents and their children now have many other options.
Over the past five years, Horn and her team have created a wide range of opportunities for employment, independent living and inclusive community involvement for people with intellectual or development disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. Headquartered in Olathe, the nonprofit serves teens and young adults from ages 10 to 30.
Tailored to meet individual and family needs, programs include job training and placement, arts and social activities, preparation for independent living, after-school activities and summer camp.
At the heart of this organization is a culture of fun, laughter and play.
This culture resonates not only through programs but through annual events, which include a winter fashion gala and Bowl-a-Rama. Open to the public, this year’s Bowl-a-Rama is scheduled for Saturday, June 30 at Olathe Lanes East Bowling Center. People of all abilities are welcome to come and bowl or to cheer the bowlers on.
“The Bowl-A-Rama is family friendly and fun,” Horn said. “People can see special-needs participants out doing the same thing everyone else is doing and we raise awareness about these needs.”
Though fun and joy certainly play an important role in the Inclusion Connections culture, job training and placement is serious business for this organization and those they serve.
In 2016, 18 percent of persons with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.3 percent.
For Horn and her team, helping people with disabilities find jobs is key.
“Employment is the pathway to independence and helps define one’s place in community life," Horn said.
Through its program, EmployAbility, Inclusion Connections prepares individuals with disabilities for meaningful jobs in the community. One element of this program is the Academy for Employment and Independence, offering year-round life skills classes needed to obtain jobs and become more independent.
“We work with job seekers for a period of time to help them discover their talents and then help them find a job in the community to fulfill their needs,” Horn noted. “We also interface with local businesses and organizations to create those job opportunities.”
Through the Artability program, the arts are also a big focus at Inclusion Connections, with a particular emphasis on theater and performance.
“The arts bring educational benefits for those with communications issues, which people with disabilities frequently have. Being on stage and learning how to speak in front of an audience helps them learn how to be advocates for their lives,” Horn said.
Despite all she has accomplished in the past five years, Horn continues to open doors on new possibilities to serve the special needs community.
In the fall of 2016, she launched PawsAbilities. An artisanal dog treat and handcrafted pet toy company, all PawsAbilities products are designed, sold and delivered by individuals with special needs.
“When I decided to get into the job training piece and then open the dog treat business, I wasn’t sure if it would work,” Horn said. “I’m blown away by the skills and talent of the special needs people I work with. They learn everything about the business and then just do it.”
Inclusion Connections’ vision is to transform perceptions and beliefs through advocacy, education, and conversation, so the community will become more inclusive and disability-friendly.
“Inclusion Connections has been a force for inclusivity in our own backyard,” said Susan McCabe, mother of a 17-year-old son with Down syndrome.
“With its three-prong approach to social life, employment training and eventually independent living, it has transformed the model for families raising children with special needs in this area and given us hope for something better.”