Walk for Inclusion aims to promote kindness, understanding

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COLUMBIA — Like most sixth graders, Julianna Basi's favorite part about going to school is hanging out with her friends. But for children with special needs, making friends can be difficult.

"Children in special education are just like children in general education. They really want to have friends, to be included and have social lives," said Amie VanMorlan, the vice president of the Columbia Special Education PTA (SEPTA). "They want to have a place in this world where they are accepted and appreciated for who they are, quirks and all."

Several organizations teamed up to host the first Walk for Inclusion at Cosmo Park on Saturday. More than 200 people attended the event, aimed at raising awareness about different disabilities, promoting inclusion within Columbia schools and in the larger community.

In addition to the walk, several education stations were set up around the park to teach people about the perspectives and experiences people with different abilities have.

Cory Jonak, a third year medical student at the MU School of Medicine, worked at a touch sensitivity booth, which was covered with different types of clothing and textures like sandpaper or bristled sponges. He explained how people with different abilities can experience touch differently.

"For some of us, wearing a sweatshirt could feel really nice and soft, but for kids who have sensitivities to different touches, it could feel like anything from a hard bristled sponge to sandpaper," he said.

To avoid that uncomfortable feeling, people with touch sensitivity sometimes have two or three outfits that they rotate everyday throughout the week.

"It may be odd to some of us who think, 'Why do they only wear two or three outfits?' but to them it's just kind of a mechanism they use to avoid that uncomfortable experience," he explained.

Jonak said understanding different abilities and experiences helps raise awareness so people can feel included, have a better time at school and in life in general because, "happiness is really the key to health."

Sarah Greenlee, a special education teacher with Columbia Public Schools, said the educational booths taught her about tools and techniques she can use to make her classroom more inclusive.

"I've learned about different ways I can include kids with different disabilities, different sensory sensitivities and assistive technology," Greenlee said. "I learned ways we can foster that environment of inclusion and create the culture of kindness that includes everyone."

Several Mizzou athletes representing softball, baseball and track and field lead the Walk for Inclusion around Cosmo Park. Cayla Kessinger, a softball player, said this experience was a "real eye opener."

"It's really cool to come and see different perspective and see how kids interact with other people," Kessinger said. "It's been an awesome experience being able to give back and hang out with them today."

The Walk for Inclusion also served as a fundraiser for SEPTA. At least a dozen prizes and gift baskets were included in a silent auction. Part of the donations will go toward mini grants for teachers to purchase sensory supplies that can make their classrooms more inclusive for children with special needs.

Donations will also go toward a Kindness Club SEPTA is hoping to start up at some Columbia Public Schools, said VanMorlan. The Kindness Club would encourage children in general education to integrate with children in the special education program.

"We hope to create an environment of warmth and acceptance to include these children and we're hoping the kindness will be contagious and spread throughout Columbia Public Schools and into the community," VanMorlan said.

SEPTA will continue to accept donations through its GoFundMe page.