Banking on KC – Debbie Horn of Inclusion Connections
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Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Debbie Horn, the co-founder and executive director of Inclusion Connections, an organization that works to strengthen the lives of individuals with disabilities by creating inclusive opportunities for them. Welcome, Debbie.
Thank you, Kelly. It's a pleasure to be here today. Thanks for having me.
You have three main focuses at Inclusion Connections. You have community involvement, access to meaningful employment and better options for supported living. We'll get into those and the programs that you have for them in just a few minutes.
First, tell our listeners about why you co-founded Inclusion Connections 10 years ago.
Inclusion Connections was really born out of a need for my son, Matthew, who is next week turning 27 years old. At that time he was 17. We were looking at high school graduation and just trying to figure out what would be next for him.
Parents like myself often say graduating high school for our students is really like falling off a cliff.
You've got your educational opportunities. You have community opportunities, social opportunities. The day he graduates, those all fall away.
So, typically people with intellectual disabilities can start going to day services. That's a trajectory that many people go.
But Matthew had been communicating to me all along that he wanted to work, really just wanted to do what his brothers and his peers were doing.
In order to make that happen, he needs supports. He doesn't drive. He doesn't have the wherewithal to live on his own and manage his entire life. He needs support.
So, I started this organization to help Matthew and other people with intellectual disabilities in our community.
As you said, that was 10 years ago. You focused around the three areas that I described earlier. You have programs for each of those.
So, tell us about the programs that you have to help carry out one of your first goals, which is social and community.
Right. When we started, again, most people that we served were still in high school, so our social opportunities were primarily in the evenings. Then we had a very vibrant summer camp.
That was really a time of need for kids that were still in high school. So, we would do two months of programming, going everywhere in Kansas City you can imagine, the zoo and LEGOLAND, every place that somebody would want to go.
Now we've transformed to social opportunities within Inclusion Connections because we're talking about adults and we're talking about adults that work year round. So, summer camps aren't as appropriate as they were then.
We do a lot of evening activities, where we still include kids that are in high school, but really cater towards the adult population at this point.
We do in the evening, any kind of learning class. We'll do a game club or cooking class. Our most popular class is theater.
We have not a shy one in the bunch. We just wrapped up our Beauty and the Beast play and it was amazing. So, all kinds of different opportunities as the semesters go along.
Yeah. Do you still go out into the community, say to sporting events or things like that?
We do. We have a great partnership with the Royals. They're very generous to donate tickets. Starlight Theatre, same thing.
Then we'll do some bowling events and going to the movies and meeting up at restaurants and things like that.
So, pretty well-rounded there. You have a very robust employment initiative. Talk to us about that.
We do. This year we'll serve about 140 students in that program. We have wrapped it all up in a business called Pawsibilities.
As we were looking to try to make progress in the area of disabilities, I just didn't want to have a program where students came to have classroom-style learning.
Our kids learn much better, most of us do, in a hands-on environment. So, we were trying to figure out how we would do that. What kind of social enterprise, micro business would we set up, where number one, the students could run most of it?
That was very important to me. I didn't want to have a business where I had employees doing all the work, our students doing a few things here and there.
So, we looked at a few things. Really, the dog treat business, it came out to me in a number of ways.
Number one, it didn't cost us hardly anything to start. That was important. We were still young and didn't have a lot of financial access, so that was good.
Number two, we felt like we could connect to a separate community that may not be a part of community of people with disabilities, but a community of people that are compassionate. They're passionate about their dogs. That compassion that they have spills over to our students and gives us just a wide array of contacts throughout the Kansas City community.
Again, just something that our students can do. So if you were to come to Possibilities, you would see all the products that the students make.
They make everything that we sell in the store. If you buy something, a student is going to ring you up at the register. They're trained to run the Square process, to talk about the products, to communicate with you and do that whole process.
So, it's really an awesome thing to see. It's amazing how, just for instance, my son, Matthew, he sewed probably 3,500 bandanas last year.
I would've never guessed that that would've been a skill that he had and something that he would enjoy. But there just are so many things that we're pulling out of the students that we serve, that show that they have just so many skills and the desire to work.
They're learning new skills too. Like you said, running the cash register, a lot of the skills that are vital in retail. So, do many of them go to get jobs in retail afterward?
We have a wide variety of employment placement. That's the end part of our program, is we help each one of our students get jobs in the community.
Coffee shops are a place where a lot of our students work. We've got the coffee shop next door that employ a lot of our students.
Doggy daycares is a very popular place. Almost everybody that we serve loves animals in general, but dogs in particular. So, that's a good place.
But really, it's about the student's desires and strengths. So, we've got people in bakeries and people at an insurance company.
We don't take any industry and say, "This is for us." It's really what works best for the student and the family.
You're located in Olathe. You mentioned the coffee shop. I believe that's Sweet Tee's?
Yes, correct. Yeah.
Yeah. That's next to you out there in Olathe. When did you move into that building?
We've been in our current space for about five years. We were across the parking lot in a smaller space.
We actually started at the Great Mall in Olathe, 10 years ago. We were there a couple years.
But yeah, we've been at our current space for almost five years now. Just recently doubled our footprint there and opened our Transition Academy and just enabled us to get more space for storage and things like that as we grow.
Other than the bandanas, tell us about some of the other kinds of products that the kids sell.
Treats, of course, are a staple. We have beef, peanut butter and grain-free treats. They make every treat.
We have small bag treats. Then we have larger, what we call jumbo-decorated treats. So, you can get a treat for birthday or an adoption event. Whatever you want to put on there we can do that.
We make a lot of different toys out of donated T-shirts. So, we make pool toys and sniff mats. I don't know if you've ever heard of those, but it's a square thing with T-shirts on it where you hide treats in it and then the dogs find it. So, it's a little game for the dogs.
Again, the community donates the product, so no cost of goods. We're able to upcycle those T-shirts into pool toys.
We also make toys out of fire hose, so some of the local fire departments donate those. We cut them up, put some squeakers in them and some straps for the pulling part and make those.
We do a few hats and T-shirts with our logos on them, sell a few of those and some tea towels.
It's still quite a product line there. Is it open every day?
Every day, 8:30 to 5:00, Monday through Friday.
One of the other programs that you're continuing to work toward is Independent Living. Tell us about that.
I also understand you have a campaign that you're running right now in order to help you further those goals.
One of the biggest issues for my son, Matthew, and those that we serve is just the lack of housing opportunities.
Right now, the government does have an intervention in place called group homes. I'm sure many people have heard of that.
We're just looking to just maybe move a little bit into the future and look at other ways that we can serve our population so that they can live a more fulfilled life.
BelongKC is our project that we have begun. We purchased land in Olathe, and we're getting ready to embark on our capital campaign here in the next month.
So, we want to build a campus where, right now it's 44 individual apartments, so 44 students can live, two story.
First story will be all about support services, so transportation. We'll have our Possibilities on the first story. We'll have a lot of health initiatives on this campus.
We're looking at a partnership with Special Olympics Kansas. They're very interested in being a part of BelongKC and serving not only the people that live there, but the entire Kansas City community, and a gymnasium set up and a workout room that's just designated for people with disabilities.
So, we're super excited about it. It's time that Kansas City put together something like that. It exists East Coast, West Coast, Texas area.
Primarily, these initiatives are driven by parents out of a serious need. Most of them, quite frankly, are driven by well-to-do parents for wealthy families.
So, our initiative is going to be a little bit different. We're going to make this affordable for the people that live there, market rate rent. And then hopefully partner with different services that are available to support people with disabilities, so the rest of that can be paid for.
Of course, ongoing fundraising and donations are going to be a big part of the support to keep this going.
We believe this model is going to be something that can be replicated throughout Kansas City and the United States, where you can build them for different populations.
Because I mean, just like typical people, there are different populations in the disabled community, and so my heart is to be able to help everybody.
Absolutely. You mentioned that during your campaign, you will need funds. How are you supported right now?
Yeah, thanks for asking. Unlike most people that serve this population, we are not supported by the government at all. We're all privately funded.
Our annual gala, Fashionability, which just took place in February, supplies about 60% of our operating revenue. Obviously, that's all coming through donations, corporate and individual.
We've been sold out the last three years at Fashionability, at around 600 people. Everybody says it's just the most fun event.
Our students play a big role in the event. Everybody gets to learn about them and see their personalities just shine on stage.
Again, as I said before, with our theater program, not a shy one in the bunch. So, you'll get to see their dance moves. Everybody has unique outfits that are meaningful to them. So, it's just a great time.
We always do it at the Embassy Suites in Olathe, so just a beautiful location and fun time.
I've never attended, but I've seen the photos from the event. Everybody does look like they are having a wonderful time. As you mentioned, the students, they are just smiling from ear to ear.
Is it a combination fashion show and entertainment? You mentioned the outfits, and then you mentioned the dance moves.
We always have a performance. The kids will sing a song or two, and then each student walks with a top model, so that we'll have a peer from the community walk with them.
While they're walking and doing their dance moves and showing off their clothes, we have an emcee that's reading personal information about them. So, I think that's probably the most moving part of the event.
If you come to the event and you have not been in the world of disabilities, you're going to learn that Matthew wants to live independently and he wants to get married.
I often have so many people come up and say, "I didn't know that. I never thought about that." So, it doesn't just allow you to see his personality, but it also allows you to hear about his and the others' hopes and dreams. Then of course, that motivates most people to want to support that.
Everybody understands. Everyone in this world wants the same thing. They want some autonomy, some independence, as much as possible.
They want those personal relationships. They want love. They want to work and be productive in society.
Exactly. Feel needed.
Can you give us some examples that are especially moving to you or exceeded your expectations?
Sure. I can think of a couple of things. One thing that stands out in my mind is their first paychecks. They get their new job, and they come in with that first paycheck. The smile, ear to ear, that you know is just going straight to their heart, that they feel needed, they feel wanted, they feel productive. They feel like they've achieved something.
So, we work really hard to get to that point. It's just the most amazing thing, to see the sparkle in their eyes when they have that.
The other thing I'm thinking about, that we've actually been going through with some of our new students, our kids these days... so this generation of kids with developmental disabilities are having a great experience in school inclusion-wise.
When I went to school, kids with disabilities often were shipped to even another town, their own school. So, they only attended classes with people with disabilities.
But Matthew was able to go through his entire high school experience attending regular classes, quite popular at school. He was crowned king at Homecoming and all that kind of stuff. Typical girls would ask him to the dances.
So, in good ways, he felt normal. But the challenging way was when he graduated high school, that normalcy needed to change a little bit, just like myself or anybody.
For instance, maybe you thought you wanted to be a doctor. But when you graduate high school with a 2.0 average, you're thinking, okay, reality's setting in, I need to figure out what my life's going to be like.
Some of our kids will come to Inclusion Connections and think, I don't have a disability. Why am I here? Who are these people? I'm not sure I want to hang out with these people.
So to see that transformation then, and Matthew was one of those that, oh, I'm going to go to college and I'm going to do everything my typical peers are doing.
That wasn't going to be Matthew's life. He needed to get to a point where he could settle in with having friendships, primary friendships with people that have disabilities. It took a little while.
We go through processes with all of our new students, but it's exciting to see that now too, who he texts with at night and who he goes out to dinner with and the movies with. He's a hundred percent happy with that.
So, just going through that process at Inclusion Connections, it's just very rewarding to see them to be able to make that transition.
In addition to the donations that you rely on and the funds that are generated through the Possibility Store and through your gala, I know that you also need volunteers.
In fact, Country Club Bank Associates work with you at Possibilities a few times a year. So, tell us about some of the opportunities for volunteering that you have available.
Sure. As you said, we always need volunteers. Volunteers will often say it's one of the most fun places to come volunteer, because you can work alongside of our students in a lot of different areas, in the kitchen making the treats, or we do some braiding of T-shirts to make toys or assembling a sniff mat or the sewing process.
Sometimes people come in and talk about their jobs and educate our students. We've got somebody coming in to teach art a couple of times a week.
So, there are a lot of opportunities to do something that you enjoy and have a major impact on our students.
For our listeners who would like to find out more about Inclusion Connections, the website the best place to go for that?
Sure. We actually have two websites. ICKC.org is all about just the entire organization. If you have a student that you think might want to be involved, that's the place to go.
But if you're interested in our dog treats or buying any of our products or getting involved, that's at PawsKC.org. So, we've got two different sites for that.
Paws, just like a dog paw? Paws with an S?
Yeah, P-A-W-S, KC.org.
PawsKC.org. So, go check it out. Debbie, thank you so much for providing these kinds of programs in the Kansas City area, for all you do for this population and for taking the time to join us to talk about it today.
Well, it's been my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Kelly.
This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Debbie Horn for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC.
Some of the most impactful organizations and programs are borne out of someone seeing a need and doing something about it.
Debbie Horn witnessed a need for her son, Matthew, as he graduated high school. So, she founded Inclusion Connections.
She and her team are transforming not only the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities, but also the hearts and minds of Kansas Citians by creating opportunities in which local businesses, community members and area leaders can interact with and embrace citizens with developmental disabilities.
Country Club Bank Associates have been enriched by the opportunity to volunteer regularly at Possibilities and to attend the annual gala.
Like Inclusion Connections, our goal is for the Kansas City community to truly become more inclusive and welcoming to those with disabilities and others whose voices often go unheard.
Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on new Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.