The puppet story goes like this: When 11-year-old Brenda finds out that Ellen Jane has Down Syndrome, she doesn’t want her to take her dog to the vet.
Brenda quickly realizes that she is wrong.
More than 100 third graders studied alongside Brenda while they watched in silence in the audience at Washington Woods Elementary School.
“She learned that even with Down syndrome, you can do things that people without Down syndrome can do,” said Nora Paul-Blanc, a third-grader who watched the show, put together by the Joseph Maley Foundation.
That is the goal.
The foundation was established more than a decade ago to help students understand and support people with disabilities. The Indianapolis-based nonprofit provides school districts throughout central Indiana with programs that celebrate diversity – learning about people with different disabilities, mental health issues, gender identities and families.
These programs include a summer sports camp, racing events, puppet shows and speaker series. People often make false assumptions about people with disabilities, said Erica Christie, the foundation’s director of education.
And often people don’t look beyond the disabilities to see the people who have other interests, talents and abilities.
“We talk a lot about the fact that people with disabilities are often just as smart and capable,” Christie said.
“A disability is just a part of you, and people with disabilities are full human beings, just like all of us,” she said. “They can have interests and families and friendships and have jobs and have children.”
The organization expanded to include mental health programs around 2016 following a string of teenage suicides. The students who work with the foundation said they need to help students cope with mental illness, stress and trauma.
“Nobody talks about suicide in our schools,” she recalls, hearing students tell her. “Nobody teaches us how to take care of our mental health.” So the foundation began teaching elementary school students how to speak and process their feelings, including breathing exercises that relieve stress.
These problems were exacerbated during a pandemic when young people were isolated in quarantine, some with just a TV to babysit.
“We teach children strategies when they are feeling anxious. What can you do? When your mind spirals, how do you get it under control,” she said.
And in the past year, the foundation has expanded to include programs celebrating people of all gender identities and from different family types.
Since the organization was founded in 2008, its program has served around 275,000 students. Last year, the organization worked with around 45,000 students in 75 schools.
The students gathered around the stage had dozens of questions: What is a disability? Is it dangerous? Is it contagious? Where does it come from? Do all people have a disability? Were you born with a disability? Can dogs be disabled? Can all animals be disabled?
And the students are eager to learn.
They listened as Ellen explained to Jane that she was born with Down Syndrome. But she can take care of the dog Muffy just as well as anyone else.
“You shouldn’t assume that people with Down syndrome can’t do things because they have Down syndrome,” Ellen Jane, the doll, told Brenda.
What is your organization’s mission?
The foundation’s mission is to celebrate diversity and promote an inclusive community through education and other services for young people in the greater Indianapolis area.
How many people do you look after?
The organization worked with about 45,000 students last year.
What is the most important need of your organization?
Donate. As a small organization, any additional funding helps. Visit josephmaley.org to donate.
How can people get involved?
Individuals who are able to speak about their disability are welcome to participate in the speaker series and please contact Kelly Bradbury at Kbradbury@josephymaley.org. Those wishing to help organize and coordinate events should email Executive Director Vivian Maley at Vmaley@josephymaley.org.
IndyStar season to share
The joint mission of IndyStar’s Our Children initiative and the annual Season for Sharing campaign is to harness the power of journalism to transform the lives of Central Indiana’s youth. We invite you to join us by making a financial contribution. The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust is matching donations dollar for dollar, up to $25,000. All charitable donations are tax deductible.
Funds raised during this year’s campaign will be distributed in early 2023 to organizations primarily serving Marion County youth and families.
Go to indystar.com/ocdonate to donate online. If you prefer to send a check, please email: Central Indiana Community Foundation, Attn: Our Children, 615 N. Alabama St., Suite 300, Indianapolis, IN 46204. You can also donate by You send “SHARING” to 80888.
About the Joseph Maley Foundation
Mailing address: PO Box 681010, Indianapolis, IN 46268
Binghui Huang can be reached at 317-385-1595 and Bhuang@gannett.com.