Olathe & Southwest Joco

FashionAbility Gala more than a runway show for Olathe’s Inclusion Connection

Maya Sim, 11, of Olathe, hopes to become a hairdresser in the future. A 2018 and 2019 FashionAbility Gala participant, Sims enjoys dancing, swimming and gymnastics.
Maya Sim, 11, of Olathe, hopes to become a hairdresser in the future. A 2018 and 2019 FashionAbility Gala participant, Sims enjoys dancing, swimming and gymnastics. Special to the News

On Feb. 9, 30 models will bring some magic to the runway during Inclusion Connections’ fifth annual FashionAbility Gala.

The stars at this annual fundraiser will be young people with special needs who work at the Olathe-based nonprofit, or attend classes, training or camp there. As they walk and dance down the runway, smiling all the way, they will have the opportunity to share their passions and hopes and dreams for the future with their audience.

“All of our participants love to be on stage, but the Gala is not a fashion show,” said Debbie Horn, Inclusion Connections founder. “It’s about the participants sharing who they are.”

Over the years, the event has opened people’s eyes, Horn said.

“Audience members have come up to me after it’s over and say they never knew or understood that these young people wanted a normal life, to work and live independently, or to be married and have families.”

The mother of a son with special needs, Horn founded Inclusion Connections in 2013. She launched the organization in response to the scarcity of employment and other opportunities available for her son and others with special needs.

Headquartered in Olathe, the nonprofit serves teens and young adults between ages 10 and 30 who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. The organization provides access to meaningful employment, better options for independent living and inclusive opportunities for community involvement.

According to Horn, the fundraiser is important because the organization’s mission is “up front and center” during the event.

“There are a lot of options for organizations to raise money, but through the Gala we can show the public the value and strengths of our participants,” she said.

Jawanda Mast, mother of Gala participant, Rachel Mast, agreed. Her daughter both walks the FashionAbility runway and volunteers to help organize and run the event.

“The Gala raises needed funds for Inclusion Connections, but also does a great job helping patrons engage and embrace the mission of Inclusion Connections,” Jawanda Mast said.

“It gives Rachel opportunities to shine and inspire, and to also give back and support an organization that is important to her and to others in our community.”

A FashionAbility participant for the past four years, Rachel Mast not only has big goals for her future, but has already accomplished and made many a reality.

During the past five years, the 19-year-old, who graduated from Olathe South in 2018, has successfully advocated at state and national levels for special needs legislation. Her efforts were key in the passage of the federal ABLE Act of 2014.

This bill allows individuals with special needs and disabilities to maintain tax-free savings accounts that will support their health and independence while preserving government benefits.

Mast has also performed in more than two dozen stage productions and is currently a freshman at Missouri State University.

“My dream is to move to New York City and be on Broadway, get married and live in a pink house,” she said. “I have Down syndrome, but I am not Down syndrome. I am Rachel and I have dreams.”

Though the fashion element is not the Gala focus, participants often select clothing or costumes that reflect the personalities or careers they hope to follow in the future. The models also work with their parents to write personal statements, which are then read by the show’s emcees while they walk the runway.

Emcees for this year’s Gala, which will be held at Embassy Suites Olathe, are Joe Chiodo. KCTV5 news anchor and Jennifer Bertrand, HGTV Design Star Winner and the mother of a child with special needs.

According to Horn, not only do Gala participants look forward to the event, their parents do, too.

“Parents loves it because it’s a chance for their children to shine and be recognized in a fun and happy environment,” she said. “There are not many opportunities anywhere for parents to do this with their children who have disabilities.”

For more information, 2019 FashionAbility Gala.