Fourteen years ago, a group of six committed parents who believed their children could live independent, healthy and meaningful lives founded The Mission Project, a nonprofit organization that enables adults with developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome and autism, to live and work on their own with individualized support. For those of us in the nonprofit sector, “mission” goes to the heart of the definition of why we exist as nonprofits. In the case of The Mission Project; “mission” literally means special people living, working and learning from each other in the City of Mission. The SKC staff recently convened a group of volunteers, parents, City of Mission representatives, program support providers and staff to learn more about how the community of Mission has embraced these special residents. At the heart of the program is Sarah Mai, long-time employee and Executive Director. Parents credit Sarah for the amazing work she has done to make the Mission Project a model program. That success is exemplified in the lives of these young people as they live independently, a vision their parents worked tirelessly to make a reality.
“These young people have jobs and transportation to get to those jobs. There is 100% employment for the participants. Getting employed and staying employed makes them productive and contributors to the local economy. Being compensated for the work they do gives their lives meaning,” says Sarah. “Mission business owners embrace the participants. They display The Mission Project logo in their shop windows so that participants know those are safe places for them to go if they need help.” The City benefits because of their employment, they have an economic impact. Business owners and employees also have the opportunity to learn about the participants and how capable they are.
Matt Breshears, police officer with the City of Mission and chapter President of the Local Fraternity of Police says that Mission police officers recognize the participants and offer rides if they need them. “We work with the community to help them understand the needs of these young people and how they fit into our community. Mission is a very “walkable” city with amenities that include the Sylvester Powell Community Center, restaurants, a grocery store and shops.”
A safe place to live is fundamental to the success of the participants’ independent living, but that’s just part of the program success. Tim Crough, who owns a gym in downtown Overland Park, has seen the participants’ skills grow as he has worked with them over the years. He initially came to know each participant when he was a trainer at the community center and they walked laps for their Walking Club. His work has evolved with the creation of the “functional” fitness program, MPower Health. This approach involves redeveloping skills that are usually acquired between 6 months of age and 5 years that are often lost by people with disabilities but can be redeveloped through reaching, rolling, crawling to improve their gate. By improving their health stability, they can reduce pain and develop functional mobility. “When the body moves properly we can affect people’s lives on a grander scale” says Tim.
Ketti Coffelt, Occupational Therapist Professor at Rockhurst University has been associated with the program for several years. She’s seen changes over the years that includes a movement toward “inclusion” for participants. Rockhurst is committed to social justice and serving, and by having OT student interns involved in programs like The Mission Project, they can pull to their strengths and become immediately immersed in the work. Everyone wins. They use the Mission Project program to do research and services learning projects, which provides a unique learning opportunity that isn’t often found in more traditional placements.
Ed Soltz, Mission Project parent and board President says that they hope to continue the growth of the program and increase the number of participants. Partnerships like the relationship with the City of Mission and Rockhurst University support their growth. The Mission Project will continue to raise funds to meet the needs of their growing program. Each year they host several special events including the “Run for the Roses” Derby Gala. As the founding parents age, it critical for them to know that this work can continue to be sustained both by financial support and the innovative programming that The Mission Project is known for.
“It can be hard for parents to let their children leave home and live independently” shared Robin Silverman, a founding parent. “Most of our kids grew up without many friends and peers. Because of the Mission Project, they can live quality lives in a community with peers that accept them”.
To learn more about the Mission Project visit their website at www.themissionproject.org
Photo 1: Front: Sarah Mai and Participants of The Mission Project; Back: Officer Breshears and Steve Anderson, Shawnee Mission Rotary Club
Photo 2: From the left: Tim Crough, Robin Silverman, Rachel Harada, Debra Box, Scott Smith, Ed Soltz, Sarah Mai, Officer Breshears