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Building a Generation of Volunteers

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Volunteer Fairfax was pleased to combine two popular family-friendly volunteer events, Valentines Challenge and Give Together, into the 2021 MLK, Jr. Weekend of Service. In both events, volunteers worked on service projects from the safety of their homes, school, or after school programs. Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors and some ingenuity in sorting supplies, we were able to distribute nearly 1,000 project supply kits out to the community! The kits included bird seed, crayons/markers, construction paper, glue, stickers, string, pompoms, pipe cleaners, valentine decorations, etc. Sending out project supply kits eliminates the need for parents/guardians to spend funds to secure these items. Our goal was to ensure that, regardless of access or ability to purchase materials, everyone should know the power of Dr. King’s call to service and be able to participate in service activities. We were honored to work with nonprofit organizations like Cornerstones, Lorton Community Action Center, Neighborhood Community Services, and other local civic groups like the Jack and Jill Club of America, Inc. to ensure that several supply kits went to youth in need.

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Making its debut this year was the first-ever MLK, Jr. Volunteer Guidebook which was available in hard-copy or digital download to those who registered to participate in Give Together. This outstanding publication outlines actionable service project ideas to engage families. Parents and educators can select projects based on key mission areas including food insecurity, social justice, elder care, and homelessness. The MLK Jr. Volunteer Guidebook also included Step-Up Challenges geared towards helping teens make simple service ideas actionable with their peers and within their communities.

“Thank you so much for this resource book-it’s set up so nicely, in a way that really helps families engage with their kids of all ages to do something meaningful within the local community. I appreciate all of the local extensions/community contacts, and the overall format with very clear guidance and thought- and conversation-provoking questions. Thanks for putting this together for families looking to volunteer during the pandemic!” Kristin Kuyuk

“Well done! Impressive jobs on the booklet and service projects ideas!” Sara Holtz, 2020 Providence Community Champion

This year, the Valentines Day Challenge expanded its mission beyond supporting youth aging out of the foster care system and challenged the community to share the love with frontline healthcare workers. Based on the overwhelming response for supply kits, we expect our volunteers to have hand-crafted more than 10,000 valentine cards that will be distributed to the following organizations: Foster Care to Success, Fairfax County Foster Care System, Adoption and Kinship Children, Children’s National Medical Center, INOVA Hospital System, Walter Reed Medical Center and Wounded Warriors.

VolFairfax - Handmade valentines day cards 2

We know that those receiving these cards will appreciate the good wishes of the community displaying the creative cards kids and adults alike have so thoughtfully created. To see card making in action along with other Weekend of Service activities, visit the VF Kudoboard. These images have been posted by the community as they share their amazing work and talents.

One of the highlights of the MLK, Jr. Weekend of Service was having U.S. Naval Academy’s Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber join us in recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of service with a video message to families to help foster volunteerism with young people. Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, the Naval Academy’s first African American female brigade commander, has an impressive list of accomplishments including her volunteerism working with a STEM outreach program that leverages mentoring, literature, and service lessons for middle school-aged girls of color. She shared, “My passion, the things that drives me and gets me out of bed each morning is service to others.” For the full recording of Midshipman 1st Class Barber’s inspiring kick-off message, click here.

Thanks to Lead Partners – AT&T, Leidos, and TransurbanCGI; Silver Supporters -Deloitte, NetApp, Northwest Federal Credit Union, and NOVEC; Foundation Supporter -Virginia Service Foundation; and In-Kind Supporter -Wegmans for making this event possible! Special mention to our long-time partner, the Pozez Jewish Community Center, where we hosted a food drive on MLK, Jr. Day that provided 781 pounds of food to Food for Others.

Our hope for the year’s event is to inspire children and youth to observe what’s going on in their community, ask questions of why something might be happening, dream of how things could be different, and feel empowered to be great agents of change. Seeing and hearing from so many of you, despite difficult times, lets us know that together we can accomplish great things! We can be great because we can serve.

For more service ideas for you and your family, please visit our volunteer opportunity database VolunteerNow!

Celebrating 10 Years of Support for Immigrant Students

The Dream Project began 10 years ago at Emma Violand-Sanchez’s kitchen table. She organized a group of people who knew students’ immigration status should never limit their educational aspirations. Now, a decade later, the Dream Project has grown to support 100 students annually with scholarships and has expanded programing to include mentoring and case management to give students their best chance at success.

Like all nonprofits, the Dream Project has had to adapt and pivot due to COVID-19. However, we have also been fortunate to be able to grow and celebrate thanks to innovations and virtual programs. We began celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Dream Project with a wildly successful virtual holiday event. Our supporters recognized that immigrant students and their families were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and responded with overwhelming generosity. Thanks to their donations, we have been able to bolster the support we are providing to Dreamers.

Dream Project

As you may know, the majority of our immigrant students are ineligible for state and federal aid, including Covid-19 stimulus funds. The majority of our students work in small businesses to pay for school, some juggling multiple part-time jobs. Unfortunately, these jobs in restaurants, retail and other small businesses were the hardest hit by the pandemic. So, in addition to awarding scholarships, we made supplemental funds available through our COVID-19 Emergency Fund and the Herman Loan Fund, and increased our case management, connecting clients to low-barrier resources for rent assistance, food pantries, mental health services, medication coverage and more.

The pandemic also presented a challenge of maintaining the vital sense of community that started at Emma’s kitchen table, celebrating the successes of the past 10 years while acknowledging the hardships everyone, especially our students and their families, faced due to COVID-19. The Dream Project was inspired to create new ways to connect from our homes while advocating for undocumented students in the community. In partnership with Busboys and Poets, we launched a series of virtual book talks called DARE TO DREAM: Important Conversations about Immigration, which is open to the public. The books and presenters selected reflect the struggles of our students, Dreamers and the Immigrant community. Thanks to the virtual format, we have had highly esteemed authors such as Four-time Emmy Winner and NPR reporter,Maria Hinojosa and prize-winning poet, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.

Our next talk, with a panel from PEN America’s DREAMing Outloud program, will take place on February 18th. RSVP here.

The Dream Project is optimistic about 2021 and invites you to join in our efforts to empower immigrant students by attending our DARE TO DREAM book talks, mentoring, donating and staying up to date on our programs. More information about the work of the Dream Project can be found on our website or in our Annual Report.

Conversations Matter: A series on local Black history and race equity

Main Street Connect creates dynamic opportunities through affordable, inclusive housing and community engagement so people of all abilities can live their best lives. In August 2020, we were thrilled to open our flagship affordable apartment community, with 25% of the units set aside for adults with varying disabilities. The building is spectacular, but what we are most proud of is the people. We offer a community of support, dynamic programming and an affordable place to live, belong, and thrive. With George Floyd’s death earlier this year, we wondered how we could use our platform to bring our community together, how we could be true to our ethos of creating a space for belonging, and use our outrage at the current state of things to ultimately ask the question, WHY DO BLACK LIVES MATTER?

In collaboration with key partners and local leaders, including the Montgomery County Collaboration Council, Donte’s Boxing and Wellness Foundation, and Virtues Matter, we collectively present an informative series of conversations to educate, support and make change! Thanks to support from Maryland Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a generous donor, Conversations Matter was born. It is a free, four-part virtual series, open to all and intended to educate and address why Black Lives Matter, through the lenses of our local Black history and the intersectionality of race and disability. Our third and fourth sessions will share ways to take action in our local communities and sustain the change we all seek. To join the next Conversations Matter session, please register here.

Conversations Matter graphic

Our first session kicked off on January 19th, and focused on our local Black history, connecting what transpired in our own backyards with key moments in history and how those moments resonate today. The panel covered many different moments and key places in local Black history, including the U Street Corridor, also known as Black Broadway. Panelist Shellee Haynesworth, producer of Black Broadway on U Street, shared thoughts about how Black Broadway came to be: “Black communities built hubs out of necessity and served as early incubators for Black arts, commerce and culture. By 1920 there were 300 African American owned businesses on the U Street corridor, locally known as Black Broadway on U. It was insulated, a safe haven,?and they had all they needed so didn’t need to leave and deal with the unpleasantness beyond their area.” It was an area built by the Black community, for the Black community. Many in attendance during our first session wondered what happened to these Black corridors – many of them were wiped out due to gentrification and urban renewal.

Our second session explored the intersectionality of race and disability. Speakers Tatiana Lee, actor, model and Hollywood Associate at RespectAbility, and Lachi, performing artist, disability champion, and speaker with RespectAbility’s Disability Speakers Bureau, shared their stories of the impact of working in the entertainment industry as a woman of color with a disability. As we work toward more diversity and equity in our communities, Lachi reminded us that, “Disability should be included as diversity.”

Our third and fourth sessions will address ways to take action to support and expand racial justice in our own community and sustain the change we seek. We hope you can join us to learn more and get involved. We hope the connections made through our Conversations Matter series can be a resource to propel you to action and help sustain you as more informed community members and better neighbors. We have a long way to go, but we believe in the power of conversation to help us build a better world for ourselves and our children.

To register for upcoming sessions, click here.

Resources from the first session can be found here.

Our Minds Matter Hosts Winter Leadership Training

For many, Sundays are for football, worship and trying to not think about anything related to school and work. It is the last refuge before a Monday, a sanctuary day when no one is supposed to do anything for as long as they can.

Yet, on Sunday January 10th, we saw the next generation of mental health activists come into their own on the Our Minds Matter (OMM) zoom stream. Our Minds Matter hosted its Winter Leadership Training where over 75 students from 45 schools across the country joined to learn about how they can end the stigma against mental health in their school environments. Each student is a leader of an Our Minds Matter club and together with other student leaders and members, they work together to promote mental wellness and increase access to mental health support among their student body. These clubs have the potential to save lives and change the story around mental health; over 80% of participating students in OMM’s summer 2020 wellness series reported an improved sense of well-being from the program.

OMM Pic

Led by Laura Beth Levitt and Catherine Royston of the Our Minds Matter program team, OMM’s club network has seen explosive growth through its mixture of competent mental health wellness programming and peer-to-peer club model that allows teens to really become leaders of their own social movement. Student leaders work hand in hand with school officials, teachers, and mental health experts to help them speak out about their mental health issues and find adequate support. As COVID-19 has increased rates of depression and anxiety among teens according to the CDC, Our Minds Matter is working with teens to counteract the next public health crisis before it occurs.

The training touched on different aspects of leadership development, teaching students to be attentive leaders in both the administrative responsibilities of their club as well as build their interpersonal skills. A panel of student leaders presented tips, tricks, and challenges on the following topics: student recruitment, leveraging OMM resources, making online meetings interactive, school-wide campaigns, and leadership transition planning.

The most exciting part of the leadership training was seeing how each of these teens valued making a difference overall. During the question-and-answer section of the program, student leaders were asked about what they hoped for most in 2021 and their answers were powerful:

  • To be someone people can talk to in my community.
  • To bridge divides between people and communities.
  • To normalize the discussion of mental health.
  • To create a community for everyone to feel safe and welcome.
  • To build a life where I feel I made a difference.
  • To be a hotline for someone in need.
  • To leave behind a club that can make an even more long lasting impact.

Each student sees themselves as part of a larger movement, one that is building a world where mental health is treated with the importance it deserves. These student leaders directly see how their work needs longevity, that the change must persist after they graduate and embark on the next chapter of their life.

This is the level of civic engagement that Our Minds Matter promotes. We work with teens to help them realize their own power to influence social change. We already have young leaders hosting townhalls, working with government officials to provide more mental health support and challenging long-standing and archaic norms around mental health.

The session ended with a mindfulness exercise that focused on self-compassion. The calming energy could be felt even over Zoom.

This is all to build a world where no teen dies by suicide. Our Minds Matter student leaders are going to make a difference in 2021. We should all be in their corner, providing them support to succeed.

Adoptions Together: Home for the Holidays

However holiday celebrations look this year, one thing is certain: all children deserve to enjoy the season with a loving family.

Across the United States, there are over 120,000 children available for adoption. These children live in a state of uncertainty – moved between foster homes, group homes, and other unstable settings. As we count down the days until Christmas, we are all surrounded by images of children spending days of celebration with the warmth and security of a family. For these children that is far from reality. While these children wake up every day with uncertainty of what the future will bring, they will not spend Christmas wrapped in the loving care of family.

Adoptions Together 8

Adoptions Together is driven by the belief that family is a human right. We believe there is no such thing as an unwanted child, just unfound parents. Every day spent without a family is a day that offers no chance to heal from trauma. We know healing happens in the context of healthy relationships and we do everything possible to support children and families.

Children should be home with their family, especially during the holiday season. Adoptions Together has been working hard throughout this complicated year to ensure that kids are connected to their forever families and we are thrilled to be placing 6 children with secure families this month – just in time to make dreams of spending Christmas with family come true.

Adoption across state lines is complicated and geography should never be a barrier for a child to have a family. While each state system has a complicated bureaucracy to navigate, social workers must work diligently to push through the process. Unfortunately, it can take months of additional instability before a child arrives home with their forever family. At times, it can take advocacy on all levels to bring a child home.

Eleven-year-old Anthony was matched with his mom and dad back in July and has been visiting through daily FaceTime calls since then. It has been hard for Anthony to understand. Why is it taking so long for him to come home? Our team has moved mountains to get this young boy home for Christmas. We are thrilled that Anthony will wake up Christmas morning in his own room and be surrounded by his forever family.

While we celebrate the joys of these six children and their families, there is still much to be done. As you experience your own holiday traditions this year, as different as they may be, we hope you will dream about how you can help make a difference in the life of a child.

Remember, there is no such thing as somebody elses child.

Talented DMV Youth Get Opportunities to Shine, Win Prizes, and Learn from Experts in DIW’s 4th Annual Youth Talent Showcase

Written by William Keiser, Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator of the Dance Institute of Washington

On Sunday, November 15th, ten talented performers, aged 6-18, took the virtual “stage” for an evening of performance broadcast to an audience of over 50 watchers. This was the Dance Institute of Washington (DIW)’s fourth annual Youth Talent Showcase, an opportunity started in 2016 to provide an uplifting platform for youth who are eager to showcase their talent, who then receive feedback from experienced judges. While this event is usually a big in-person evening, complete with balloons, a charismatic emcee, and families bustling in and out of DIW’s flagship 14th street building, this year, the action was substantially more confined, but no less dynamic.

Teens' division runner up, Fatima Diop

Teens’ division runner up, Fatima Diop

These performances were of varied disciplines; in the first half, we saw dance, acting, and some guitar playing and singing. In the second was rap, modeling, comedy, rock music, and spoken word poetry. After the show, the performers all hopped on a special zoom call to receive personal feedback from the judges: dance teacher Edwin Sorto, model/creative director Yoii Moore, musician Sean Isler, choreographer Shalyce Hemby, and hip-hop vocalist Cleva Thoughts. They announced first and second place winners in each category, but the spirit of the event was more of personal growth and expression than of competition.

For the performers, most of whom have been cooped up in restrictive quarantines for the past seven months, just having the chance to perform is extremely meaningful. Fatima Diop, sister of Adelina Diop, a DIW student, performed Sunday in the Youth Talent Showcase for the fourth time. Her persistence paid off. Her rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” was technically proficient and emotionally moving. She received 2nd place in the teens’ category and the opportunity to make a professional film with video production company DLE Vision. Fatima’s and Adelina’s mother writes, “I’m so proud of Fatima and of her perseverance and accomplishments. She is truly developing her gift and this is an amazing opportunity is presenting for her. She thanks DIW and DLE for the opportunity to further develop her talent.”

Teens' division first place winner, Morelys Urbano

Teens’ division first place winner, Morelys Urbano

In the kids’ division, first place went to Raegen Coby, with a contemporary and hip hop dance routine. Second place was awarded to Fly Zyah, whose raps covered subjects of injustice and Black Lives Matter protests. In the teens’ division, first place was awarded to 18-year-old Morelys Urbano, whose beautiful and hard-hitting spoken word poem spoke about migration.

 

The Students and Judges' Zoom Call

The Students and Judges’ Zoom Call

 

Kids' division first place winner Raegan Coby

Kids’ division first place winner Raegan Coby

On the kids’ and judges’ zoom call to dispense feedback and answer questions, judge Edwin Sorto summarized the evening best. “There’s only one of you in the world and everybody here needs to see you,” he explains. 10 participants, 5 judges, 10 videos, 44 minutes, and $326 raised in donations for the Dance Institute of Washington later, we are in agreement.

If you would like to enjoy these inspiring performances, we encourage you to watch them here.

 

A Summer Like No Other

Written by Katie Guerin, Director of Development and Communications of City Kids Wilderness Project

When the COVID pandemic closed City Kids Wilderness Project’s offices and postponed our programming in March, as an organization, we, like the rest of the world, had no idea how long we would remain in a state of isolation. However, we knew we needed to start communicating with our youth, families and external stakeholders fast to assure them that we would not only survive this pandemic but thrive in it to support our youth.

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Internal communications with youth and families was key for our programmatic continuation and evolution. We began surveying our youth and families at the onset of the pandemic to ensure that our virtual programming supported them while we were not able to all be outdoors together. Families asked that we stay connected with youth as they navigated a spring separated from friends and began virtual learning.

Then came the May murder of George Floyd and the rise of the broader social justice movement. Following the first weekend of protests after Mr. Floyd’s death, City Kids put part of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement of Beliefs out in a public post on Instagram. Externally, City Kids is increasingly seen as a leader in the outdoor social justice movement, receiving mentions on social media and increasing our Instagram audience by 25% in the month of June alone.

By virtue of the programming we do, City Kids is an organization founded on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) principles, and as such, these core tenets have historically been at the forefront of our internal communications among staff, participants and families. We have been careful and intentional to let our youth voice drive our communications, and this present moment has pushed us to share these efforts publicly and put a call to action to our CK community about allyship and solidarity and provide resources that help educate.

In an effort to respond to inquiries and share the story of City Kids and the impact of the dual pandemic on CK youth and families, we worked with DC production company In My Shoes on a video A Summer Like No Other that has been widely distributed to our stakeholders. Additionally, a group of our high school youth designed and created JET Talks, a new podcast for the City Kids community. So far, two episodes have been released, with more to come focused on exploring meaningful themes about their City Kids experiences.

Our efforts continue to evolve during COVID to meet our youth and families’ needs, and communication is essential to ensuring that we all feel supported during this time. Between March and July, the organization conducted 400+ virtual engagements with many more rolling out this fall. Thanks to emergency grants from several D.C.-based foundations in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, we were able to implement The New York Times’ 1619 Project as a central element of our summer curriculum.

After completing the lessons, a City Kids youth reflected: “One thing that I have learned was the ultimate power of narrative and how beneficial it is to take a deep dive into the true narrative, and be able to take great pride in it.”

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Find out more about City Kids’ work by visiting citykidsdc.org.

Making Virtual School Work with Peace of Mind: Kindness and Inclusion

Written by Linda Ryden, Founder of Peace of Mind

As the full time Peace Teacher at Washington DC’s largest public school, I get to work with all of our students in my weekly “Peace Class.” In Peace Class, kids learn about mindfulness and brain science and practice kindness, inclusion and peaceful conflict resolution. One important part of the program is Mindful Mentors. When my students get to 5th grade, they can volunteer to be a Mindful Mentor. My Mindful Mentors visit younger grade classrooms and lead Mindful Moments. Mindful Mentors is a very popular leadership program that younger students aspire to be part of and it has always been a lot of fun.
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Now that we are having virtual school, I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make Mindful Mentors work. After sorting out the complicated logistics of having my 5th grade students visit other virtual classrooms, I called the first Mindful Mentors meeting. I was a little bit surprised when DeAndre showed up.

DeAndre has cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair and it is challenging for most of us to understand him when he talks, although he talks a lot. DeAndre has been my student for over 5 years and has always seemed to enjoy Peace Class. Now here he was with his Dad by his side helping him out and his younger sister curiously looking on. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know how to handle the logistics at all.

I made a quick decision to see if any of the kids would feel more comfortable working with a partner and a few kids raised their hands, including DeAndre. So I paired him up with a student named Kayla. If we had been in the building I would have been able to pull her aside and talk to her about how she could handle working with DeAndre given how hard it is to understand his speech. They would have had to take turns leading the mindfulness practice. But in an online classroom talking with her privately wasn’t an option. So I just had to have faith in both of them as I sent them together into a virtual 4th grade classroom.

I heard later from the teacher who hosted them that they did a beautiful job. DeAndre was able to lead a mindfulness practice from his living room with his family looking on. Because we have been creating the ritual of the Mindful Moment for many years in Peace Class, all of the children know how it starts. “Let’s get into our mindful bodies. Let’s close our eyes or look down. Let’s take three deep breaths.” So even though they might not have been able to understand DeAndre when it was his turn, they knew what he was saying and were able to follow his directions. All of the kids treated him with kindness and patience, and his partner acted with grace and generosity. This is one of so many beautiful stories that I hold on to during this very difficult time.

DeAndre’s partner is a very thoughtful child, but I think that all of the kids at our school treat DeAndre, and all of the other students with challenges, with kindness because that is part of our culture. In Peace Class we use a curriculum I developed called “Peace of Mind.” Students begin weekly Peace of Mind lessons in early childhood and carry on through Grade 5. Peace of Mind teaches children how to notice and manage emotions such as uncertainty and worry and to understand how their brains work when they feel these emotions and when they use mindfulness to calm them down. Equipped with mindfulness skills and brain knowledge, children learn and practice inclusion, kindness, patience, acceptance, and love. Most of our students do this weekly (or more often) for 7 years in the company of their classmates. These practices are all pillars of the Peace of Mind program and over time they have become an integral part of our school culture.

After 15 years of developing the Peace of Mind Program in my classroom in Washington DC’s largest public elementary school, we formed our nonprofit organization, Peace of Mind Inc., to develop, publish and share the Peace of Mind program with other educators. Peace of Mind is now used by teachers, counselors, and social workers in public, public charter and independent schools to reach over 3,500 students a year in the DC area.
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As our schools prepare for an uncertain return to in-person learning, focusing on students’ social and emotional well-being has never been more important. In the year ahead, we will continue to develop transformative mindfulness and brain-science based resources, support our Peace of Mind educators personally and professionally, and facilitate and encourage the application of mindfulness and social emotional skills to the most pressing social justice issues of our time.

Though we can’t know exactly what challenges are ahead for our children, we can help to equip them with the tools to meet them with skill and compassion. We hope that the Catalogue for Philanthropy community will join us!

Interested in knowing more? We’d love to talk with you!

TeachPeaceofMind@gmail.com

 

 

For People with Disabilities, Voting Has Always Required a Plan

Written by Mary Ellen Dingley, Communications and Outreach Coordinator of L’Arche Greater Washington, DC (GWDC)

You can’t miss the calls to vote these days. It’s everywhere – online and on yard signs, in hashtags and on t-shirts. The message is clear – make your voting plan and exercise your right to vote! But what about people with disabilities who face challenges accessing their voting rights?

A core member (adult with intellectual disability) at L’Arche GWDC expressed their desire to join their fellow community members in voting. But this core member’s right to vote had been taken away when they were placed under guardianship. A L’Arche leader stated that “with the right supports and the right accommodations” to communicate and explain the issues and candidates on the ballot, this core member could vote. They know who they want to vote for. They have explicitly said they want to vote. But they don’t have the right.

This core member isn’t alone. As Pew Trusts reported there are “tens of thousands of Americans with disabilities who every year lose their right to vote during guardianship proceedings, according to the California-based Spectrum Institute, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.” While this impacts thousands of people, the process itself isn’t standardized: “Not only is there no agreement among legal and psychological experts over whether certain people with disabilities should be disenfranchised, but there is also no set standard for measuring the mental capacity needed to vote.”

And even if someone with disabilities retains their right to vote, actually casting that vote can be difficult. Barriers can include not having a ballot they can read (visual disabilities or ballot formatting), not having an alternative to providing a signature, the voting location not being wheelchair accessible, no functioning accessible machines, or poll workers not knowing how to support people with disabilities. The pandemic, of course, just exacerbates the situation. This is no small number of people impacted by inaccessible voting. Rutgers University researchers found “A projected 38.3 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote in the November 2020 elections, representing close to one-sixth of the total electorate.”

Fortunately, accessible voting does exist and is required by law. Charles Clark, a core family member at L’Arche GWDC, has been active as an advocate and a voter for many years. In his experience he’s always encountered accessible polling places: “that’s the law,” he explained. “Everybody has the right to vote… You discriminate against them, you get in trouble with the law, it’s on the law books.” Organizations and campaigns like the American Association for People with Disabilities REV UP campaign, Crip the Vote, and Easterseals work to end voter suppression, eliminate barriers to voting, and encourage people with disabilities to know their rights and cast a vote.

Asking “what’s your voting plan?” has become part of the “new normal” of 2020. For people with disabilities, including core members at L’Arche, having a voting plan has always been a necessity.

Prior to 2020, many people didn’t have to think of a “voting plan.” They just showed up to vote. “People with disabilities have always had to think about it,” explained Caitlin Smith, Director of Human Resources at L’Arche GWDC.

These questions that people are being encouraged to think about in 2020 – when you will vote, how you will get there – “L’Arche members think about every time an election comes around,” says Eva-Elizabeth Chisholm, Human Services Leader at GWDC. Making those voting plans and discussing them at L’Arche is a normal part of community life.

For the most part, L’Arche finds that our local polling places are accessible. But Caitlin explains that it’s “one thing for a voting process to be accessible and another thing for a person with disabilities to feel like they really belong there.” Other people at the polls might look askance at someone with a visible disability voting and might even question their ability to vote. “Voting as an inalienable right is one thing but voting and feeling like ‘I belong here, I am a person who can vote’…I think is something that in general society takes for granted.”

Core members have varied interactions with voting.

Joseph, a core member in DC, recently registered to vote. He said it was “a little bit” hard to register to vote. When asked if he thinks voting is important he said “Yes. It’s what I wanna do.”

Another core member at L’Arche voted in the last several presidential and local elections but had his right to vote taken away when his guardianship was transferred. L’Arche is now supporting him and his guardian in restoring the right to vote if they choose to do so.

Kelly has voted before and plans to again. She thought the presidential debate was important for getting to know the candidates and she watched both the presidential and the vice-presidential debate.

Lauren, Kelly, and Eric after voting in 2018

Lauren, Kelly, and Eric after voting in 2018

Mike was inspired to vote by his mom: “Mother said it was important and I believe her.” He first voted in 1969. The candidate’s speeches are important to him in choosing who to vote for.

Charles also learned about the importance of voting from his family – he had an uncle who was a congressman and another who was a judge. He reads about all the issues when voting, and specifically mentioned the job market, the Justice Department, and climate change as issues that are important to him. He’s passionate about politics: “So people have the right to vote for whoever they want to, you know.” He watches the news every evening. And what’s the most important thing about a candidate to him? “I look for sincerity and telling the truth,” he explained.

Ensuring that people with disabilities have the right to vote is no small matter. Many government policies directly impact their lives, including subminimum wage laws, marriage equality for people receiving disability benefits, and emergency funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supporting people with intellectual disabilities to vote requires we “presume competence” says Eva-Elizabeth. That means presuming that even if they communicate or understand differently than the “norm” that communicating and understanding is still valid. We must presume people with disabilities are competent to make their own decisions when it comes to voting. A challenge in supporting people with intellectual disabilities to vote is to do so without making a decision for them.

Right now, L’Arche leaders are working with the core member and guardian mentioned at the beginning of this article to restore voting rights. To do so they must come up with the means of communicating the voting choices and supporting decision making in an unbiased way. “That’s one of the biggest things that people are worried about… is this the person’s choice?” says Eva-Elizabeth.

The right to freely choose who to vote for isn’t one to be taken lightly. At L’Arche GWDC, we’re busy putting our voting plans into motion! How about you?

This blog was originally published on October 21, 2020 on the L’Arche website.

How I Learned about the Power of Advocacy

Written by Jasmine Alarcon, Youth Leader from Mikva Challenge DC

When I was in tenth grade I took a Japanese language and culture course and instantly fell in love with it. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was actually able to go to Japan through the class and not just learn about it through a textbook or maybe it’s just because it was just an amazing course. I loved every minute of it, celebrating not only the similarities between Japanese culture, my Guatemalan culture and American culture, but also the differences between them too. One of those differences being that Japanese culture has a special day to celebrate the youth, which is Children’s Day or, in Japanese, Kodomo no Hi. On this day, households put up special decorations and eat special dishes to celebrate the youth. Although American culture doesn’t have a holiday like this, Mikva Challenge programs are all about this idea of celebrating youth.

Mikva Challenge celebrates the different backgrounds youth come from and teaches them how to use their experiences to be involved in civic leadership. I became involved with them when I started my senior year of high school and was completely unaware of what I may want to do with my life. But ever since then, I have decided that I would want a career in advocacy. Through Mikva Challenge, I became involved in their Elections In Action Fellowship, where I had the opportunity to learn issues that youth care about and canvas for presidential candidates. I was also a part of their Summer Fellows program where I was able to intern in the Office of the Student Advocate and learn about the issues they are trying to fix in DC Public and Charter Schools. Mikva Challenge did a great job celebrating our successes on the work we were doing but also checking in with us to make sure we were doing well mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. They made us feel like a team and family through their praises and support, which is why I thought the holiday celebrated in Japan resonated well with what Mikva Challenge’s mission is about.

Both of these programs within Mikva Challenge DC allowed me to continue advocating and learning about issues in my community. The newest program with them that I am a part of is being a Youth Census Ambassador, which I am currently doing during my gap semester before college. With a partnership between DC Action for Children and Mikva DC, I was given the opportunity to text bank people in my community to remind them to fill out the Census, which is crucial to make sure communities receive the resources they need, especially during this time in a pandemic. Even though I would get a lot of people who wouldn’t respond to my text, there were always the ones who did, either to say they already filled it out or that they haven’t. To be able to help at least one person fill out the Census was fulfilling because that one person may have a big family or know other individuals who haven’t filled out the Census, which will in turn make a difference in the number of people who do fill it out. I enjoyed my time with Mikva and being a Youth Census Ambassador and just doing my part in my community.

Jasmine conducting an Instagram Live on the importance of completing the Census and how to vote safely in November.

Jasmine conducting an Instagram Live on the importance of completing the Census and how to vote safely in November.

Mikva Challenge DC worked with over 1200 students last year through our direct youth work that Jasmine describes above, and our partnerships with classroom teachers. This school year, we are actively supporting students to be engaged in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, to make their voices heard on issues affecting them in their school and communities through our Project Soapbox program, and empowering DC youth to create their own “Youth Values Budget” for DC to advocate for issues that are most important to them and their communities through our after school, Elections in Action Youth Fellowship. To get involved with our work, contact Mikva DC’s Executive Director Robyn Lingo at robyn@mikvachallenge.org.