Ian Monro loves swimming and tae kwon do, watches “Wheel of Fortune.” He radiates joy and has numerous friends. Ian also has learning and physical disabilities that have played second fiddle to his sunny personality, thanks to efforts by his family and friends to include him in all school and community activities. His family’s experience has paved the way for a new club at Wilton High School that seeks to “break barriers and build friendships.”
Top (Inclusion) Models, founded by a group of students and supported by the Wilton School Special Services Parent Advisory Board, was launched in December 2009. Ian’s sisters, JJ, a junior, and Julia, a sophomore, and classmates George Copley and Brian Parisi, approached the advisory board about creating a club that would embrace inclusion. After the board gave its stamp of approval, the kids asked English teacher Michael Walsh to serve as faculty advisor. The kids came up with a mission statement: “To encourage students to work together to promote the inclusion of all students in our school and community.”
“When the founding members approached me and explained their mission, I loved the idea. They went on to tap the well-spring of kids at WHS who are influential,” says Walsh. Banding together, the students developed ideas and opportunities so those with disabilities or who feel disconnected receive support to attend events they may otherwise not have been able to.
The club’s initial meeting in December 2009 attracted 75 WHS students; by the fall 2010 meeting, the club had over 200 members. “We typically now have as many as 70 kids at every meeting,” Walsh explains. “There’s great momentum. While several dynamic moms were pivotal in getting things going, the kids picked up where they left off. JJ is a natural leader. Julia, George, and Brian were key in reaching out to peers. This club is an overflow of soulfulness. I’m amazed and gratified by the numbers of students participating.”
With the help of the Parent Advisory Board, the club focuses on building awareness of the benefits of inclusion through seminars, peer role modeling, and attendance at school and community events. They have arranged seminars with professionals in many areas of disability and special education. Speakers have included Todd Kellogg, a family therapist speaking on The Definition of Disability; Michael Weiss, a developmental psychologist, on Autism and Friendship; Barbara Cooper, director of Superkids, on Reaching Out to Your Socially Isolated Classmates; and Bruce Cunningham, WHS football coach and former adaptive PE teacher, on activity modification for field days. “Mr. Cunningham is really passionate and so inspirational,” says Copley. Members of the club have also participated in PTA-sponsored events and after school activities, including Cider Mill Fun Night and Field Days.
Top (Inclusion) Models has also worked with Best Buddies, another WHS club, to host “Spread the Word to End the Word.” This effort educates students about the hurt and harm caused by using disparaging words and encourages them to pledge to stop using such language.
“Our initial focus has been on including kids with disabilities, but we also want to reach out to other students who are not feeling included,” explains JJ. “Everybody wants to help, but they don’t always know how,” added Parisi. “We’re trying to help bridge that gap.”