Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk
Full Inclusion in National Service: The Everyone Can Serve! Project
Darlene Coggins stated her mission in life during an interview to become a member of the Georgia Personal Assistance Service Corps (GA PAS Corps/AmeriCorps), an AmeriCorps project at the Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD), University of Georgia. She was asked why she wanted to be an AmeriCorps member, and she said, “Because I found my voice and I want to help others find their voices.” She had literally and figuratively found hers at her first People First meeting some years earlier; when asked to introduce herself, she spoke her name for the first time in a very long time, having been silent because of fear and because of being told to “Be quiet” much of her life. From that significant beginning, she went on to enroll in AmeriCorps as a self-advocate member to help build the skills of self-advocacy in others with cognitive disabilities.
Although the GA PAS Corps/AmeriCorps has included members with disabilities since its inception in 1994, Darlene became the first self-advocate member in the Corps when she joined in 1999. As a self-advocate, she assists others with cognitive disabilities to develop their own self-advocacy skills. The following year, 50% of the GA PAS Corps/AmeriCorps was made up of people with disabilities serving as self-advocate members. This transformation in the scope of provision of service is a natural result of the history of support of self-advocacy efforts by IHDD.
In 1997, IHDD was asked by the board of directors of People First of Georgia for assistance in the administration of the state chapter and support in the form of office space and state advisors. Answering the request, IHDD has provided support and assistance in all aspects of the organization, including assisting in the creation of local and regional chapters and in the recruitment of advisors for each chapter. Darlene Coggins, now president of People First of Georgia, says the state chapter would not exist without the support of IHDD.
This history of support of self-advocacy at IHDD has resulted in the successful funding of the Everyone Can Serve! project, a disability outreach initiative funded by the Corporation for National Service, the governing entity for national service programs across the United States. Working with Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), the national grassroots organization representing state and local self-advocacy organizations, IHDD formulated the Everyone Can Serve! project to increase the capacity of national service programs such as AmeriCorps, VISTA, and Senior Service Corps to include and support people with cognitive disabilities as members and volunteers. The title of the project was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s quote that “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve...You don’t need a college degree to serve, just a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” The idea to collaborate with SABE was the brainchild of Dr. Jenny Manders, the Program Development Coordinator of IHDD. Armed with the self-advocate mantra “nothing about us without us,” the project team made preparations to meet with the SABE Board of Directors in 2000.
At that time SABE was nine years old. It had been established in August 1991, when more than 800 self-advocates from the United States and Canada met in Nashville, Tennessee, for the second North American People First Conference. They set forth the mission of SABE, which is to ensure that people with disabilities are treated as equals and provided the same opportunities to make decisions and choices about their lives as people without disabilities. SABE believes that people with disabilities are empowered by speaking up for their rights and taking responsibility for their lives. In August 2000, representatives of IHDD met with the SABE board to answer questions about the proposed partnership and how the project fit into SABE’s strategic plan. Many of the SABE members had been involved with VISTA and AmeriCorps and wanted to make sure that the project would focus on people with cognitive disabilities. The board felt it was important that national service project directors know how to support people with cognitive disabilities so they can be involved in national service experiences as members or volunteers. The board discussed how self-advocacy organizations and their members have a long history of involvement with Corporation for National Service projects. Many state self-advocacy organizations have served as project sites for VISTA and AmeriCorps, including Tennessee, Oklahoma, New York, Missouri, and Georgia. These projects have focused on building self-advocacy in each state, and have resulted in some of the strongest self-advocacy organizations in the nation. The current chairperson of SABE, James Meadours, is a former VISTA volunteer and at the meeting he shared his experiences. He became a VISTA volunteer in Oklahoma after having been involved in self-advocacy as a state and local leader. According to James, his work with VISTA provided the opportunity to continue his involvement with self-advocacy by moving into the role of a community organizer. He also said he has gained much self-confidence in his skills as a leader and that this has led to his current career as a Self-Advocacy Facilitator for the Louisiana Self-Advocacy Project.
The board decided to work with IHDD on Everyone Can Serve! because the project would help SABE work on their goals of developing self-advocacy in the states and would provide the members with new opportunities to learn to be leaders in their states and regions. The board appointed a committee to work with IHDD in writing the grant and developing a budget. As a result of this partnership, the Everyone Can Serve! project was presented to and funded by the Corporation for National Service in 2001, with SABE playing a major role in all aspects of the grant.
The goal of the Everyone Can Serve! project is to make the full and meaningful inclusion of men and women with cognitive disabilities in national service a reality. The goal will be achieved by assisting national service programs to encourage greater participation of people with disabilities in their programs and by providing information about opportunities for national service to self-advocates with cognitive disabilities.
Men and women with both physical and cognitive disabilities who are leaders in the disability rights movement and who have participated in national service programs have been involved in the development of the project from its inception, and play integral roles in the project as planners, trainers, and evaluators. Thus, the project not only provides critical information to participants, but also serves as a model for the inclusion of people with cognitive disabilities in leadership roles.
The project is being piloted in Georgia in the first year and will expand to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana in the second year. Major components of the project include:
- Development of a curriculum of support and inclusion for the training of national service program directors and a stand-alone resource for national service programs.
- Project team visits for programs in each state for on-site consultation.
- Development of a national service committee of the SABE board.
- Development of a national service Web page on the SABE Web site to publicize national service opportunities and provide project updates to SABE members.
- Articles in the SABE newsletter.
The project planners hope that at the end of the two-year Everyone Can Serve! project, a national model for replication will remain to foster the further inclusion of people with cognitive disabilities. To quote Darlene Coggins, “The project goal is to have an Everyone Can Serve! Network across the nation,” helping self-advocates take their rightful place as full and contributing members of their communities.
National service is an excellent opportunity for people to give to their communities through service and volunteerism, and to be viewed by others as not only contributing members of the community, but as problem-solvers and leaders. As self-advocates continue to assume leadership roles in their communities and access the opportunities provided through national service, the dream of full inclusion is one step closer.
King, M. L., Jr. (1968, February). Drum major instincts sermon.