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Banking on KC – Laura Jackson & Larry Rouse of The Mission Project

 

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Laura Jackson and Larry Rouse of The Mission Project: Living Meaningful Lives, Independently

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlan. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode are Laura Jackson and Larry Rouse of the Mission Project, a nonprofit organization helping adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities discover a world of independence.

Laura is the executive director of the organization and she's been a leader and advocate for full inclusion in the community for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for over 20 years. Larry is a co-founder and parent of a program participant. He also started the Down Syndrome Guild of Kansas City and has practiced law with major Kansas City law firms for 50 years. Welcome to the show.

Laura Jackson:

Thanks, Kelly.

Kelly Scanlon:

So tell us about the approach the Mission Project uses to help the people that you serve achieve independence?

Laura Jackson:

Well, for the past 20 years, The Mission Project has been located in Mission Kansas as an opportunity for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities to be able to live independently, work in the community at a location of their choice and really become a part of the mission community.

They live in apartments that are in proximity to one another, the other participants with disabilities. Our offices are very close by where we coordinate activities for them that assist with things like learning about skills to be able to work where they want to work, different kinds of social skills, learning, being able to coordinate, volunteering together in the community.

Kelly Scanlon:

So like when you say their apartments are close together, they're close enough that they have a family feel to them, yet they still enjoy some independence because they're not all living together.

Laura Jackson:

Absolutely. Everyone has their own apartment, their own space, their own world, their own home, really.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Laura Jackson:

And it's very important to them that that's their space, their home, and it's become very important to them as adults with disabilities transition from living at home with their parents, especially after high school. It's a little bit of a different kind of world and it takes a little bit of time to develop their own space in their own home really and it's been amazing to see that really happen and become their own.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned after high school?

Laura Jackson:

So ideally right now, and especially over the years, we want the participants to be able to have the same opportunities as every other adult transitioning from high school to adulthood. So moving from your parents' house to participants, go to post-secondary education opportunities, so college. Transitioning to going to work, that kind of thing. And The Mission Project really provides a way to have those supports to make that successful, and a lot of that is part of the community within The Mission Project as well as the general community in Mission Kansas that helps that happen.

Kelly Scanlon:

So you mentioned The Mission community. That's a wonderful small community located here in the Metro. What about that area makes it ideal for The Mission Project?

Larry Rouse:

Kelly, I'll take this one and that is that there are several things. The first is, I can remember when Sylvester Powell was the mayor and his mantra was he wanted a small community located amongst many larger communities, and he wanted a community feel. He wanted people to know one other. Neighbors to know one other. Businesses, he wanted to promote small businesses. And all the people, Laura McConnell was mayor and other mayors and the mayor today are all following that plan. And the result has been it is a beautiful small community.

People care about one another, the police department knows and understands it's citizens. So we're so pleased to be a part of it. And what that does for our people is, our participants, is no matter what their diagnosis, their real disability to live independently is they can't drive. Some of them are capable of driving, but they don't have cars.

We live in a car dominated society. You need a car to go to shopping, you need a car to go here. Mission alleviates that. In Mission, they can walk to a re restaurant, they can walk to the store, they can walk to the drug store, they can walk to Sylvester Powell Community Center and work out. So it gives them that mobility that they wouldn't have anywhere else. So that's been wonderful for them.

One of the basic principles of the Mission project is so they don't have to call a parent or call someone else to give them a ride. They get together on their own. They say, "Hey, you want to go up and get a burger?" And they do, "You want to go over and work out at Sylvester Powell." So that's a true independence that most of them have never had before living at home.

And they also really bathe in the glow of the Mission project spirit, and that is they walk into a retailer and the retailer knows them and appreciates them. We have kind of an initiative that we have 32 families, and so that's about 90 or a hundred people. And when we have something to buy, wherever we live in the city, we go to Mission and we want to give back to the community. And so that's important to us too, that two-way street on giving and bringing back.

They live in community. They don't live in a group home. They live in, there are six buildings, four of them are in one building, five in another building, and so they have neighbors in those buildings who have been wonderful. The at-home apartments is where they live and that they're been wonderful for us and they've kind of make sure that they keep an eye on the guys for us, but it's hard to describe, but it's such a loving and giving community that we're so fortunate that we're there.

Kelly Scanlon:

You are a co-founder of The Mission Project. I mentioned you're a program participant parent. What inspired it nearly 20 years ago?

Larry Rouse:

Long story or short? The long story is that my son was devastated when he was in high school and he came back at career night and college night and I told him that he probably wouldn't be attending because he'd do something different. And he said, "Well, my brother and sister did that and I wanted to do it." So that gave us a lot of impetus to start investigating.

My wife and I and some other couples. We spent over two years traveling around the United States reading everything we could, but visiting programs. And what we found in 20 years ago, now this has changed a bit, was that you either kept your family member at home or you put them in a group home. And we're big fans of group homes. They really fit very well for a lot of people, but it just wasn't what we wanted and it wasn't what the people we were coordinating with, what they wanted.

We wanted parents to be very involved, but we wanted our children to have independence. And so this was the model that we kind of cobbled together from things that we visited around the country. We picked a little bit in California, a little bit here, a little bit in Chicago. We just tried to pick the best of all those and I think it's worked fairly well.

Kelly Scanlon:

One of the things that is interesting about The Mission Project is that it does just doesn't focus on the individual participants. You bring the families in too and you make them part of it. So talk with us about the family support that you offer.

Laura Jackson:

So yes, the families play a huge role in the success of The Mission Project. They're very involved volunteering at many different levels. We are very blessed to have family members with a wide variety of professional skill sets from social work to finance, that kind of thing that really help us get it done.

The family members are offered all kinds of education about benefits, planning for the future, what aging in place really means for their son or daughter, which is a huge focus of The Mission Project. We want the participants to be able to age in place in their homes.

Kelly Scanlon:

What's the average age of a participant?

Laura Jackson:

The ages of our participants range from about 25 to 44. And as people come in, participants come in, they're coming in about at that 25-year-old age.

Kelly Scanlon:

So you do have quite a lot of runway to plan for if you want them to age in place there. You've got 50, 60 years maybe.

Laura Jackson:

Sure. And the sooner you start planning for aging in place, especially when it comes to the support needs that might happen once a parent passes away, we have a component called our successor component, which helps support siblings, other people committed to being the support in a participant's life if that's needed. Once a parent passes away, is no longer to be able to be that primary support, and parents get a lot of information on how to plan for that.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have seven pillars that you follow. Can you just give us some highlights? I think that will add to the approach.

Larry Rouse:

Yeah, that's kind of interesting. We started with what we called core values, and that was important for us to distill what we learned in our visits and in our reading. And we did that in our core values, the first of which was safety and things of that nature. We've kind of worked on that over the period of time with new families that have come in and we now have what we call the seven pillars, but I think they're probably self-evident.

We have it on the website, but they deal with things like that are important to recognize. One of which is, we want life and community. We don't want isolation for our participants, and everyone would agree with that in different degrees, but we want life and community and that's why we don't own a building. It is not a group home. It is in a setting where there are other apartment dwellers there.

That's why they work in gainful employment. They don't work in a sheltered workshop or someplace where they all work together. They each have, one of them works in a bank. One of them was working in a pet hospital. Someone works at the Hy-Vee. Different places like that. That's another one of the pillars is inclusive employment. We want them to be a part of the community so that they can live on even after some of their supports are no longer there.

We want there to be a family participating. We want the families to feel a part of it and to be a part of it so that they can have a say in how it's going to develop. It's very organic. The Mission Project is, and it's changed, but it has to change. And so with the families having a great role in it, then they don't feel so hesitant to suggest change as it's important.

We have healthy choices. And one of the words that Laura used when she was describing how we help people get to their independent state. The word I would use is choices from the time they pick out their apartment to the time they furnish it, to the time that they select a job and where they're going to work to the various activities.

We have activities galore from art club to travel club to history club to magic club, to working out sessions to a walking club. We've got so many activities that most of them are put on by parents or by family members, but some we hire an art teacher who's just wonderful and they choose which to go to.

Some of them actually want to go to all of them, but they choose and some don't. That's a way that they're achieving their independence is that they have a choice in their life. Those are some of the really important values that we've set up for ourselves.

Kelly Scanlon:

With what you're doing at The Mission Project, you're right in line with what a lot of research shows, which is that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities thrive when they're provided with opportunities for autonomy for self-mastery. Give us some examples of how that is playing out with the mission project.

Laura Jackson:

So my background isn't, I worked at UMKC Institute for Human Development, which is a university Center for Excellence and Developmental Disabilities. Over the past 20 years of my work, I did a lot of work across the country and in DC and instilling self-determination, kind of working with policymakers and making systems change to instill that because there's a lot of research that shows if people are given these opportunities to live independently, fully inclusive in the community where they can choose their own lives, there are these outcomes of they're healthier, they're happier, quality of life just skyrockets. The research is out there, but it's very intuitive.

Kelly Scanlon:

Can you give us some examples from The Mission Project of successful outcomes like this?

Larry Rouse:

We've got quite a few. One of the things I think that in common when we're talking to parents, most parents don't feel their child, or from a family member, is capable of living independently. And so the first thing that we have to do is we have to give them the stories of how successful the transition from living at home to living in their own apartment is. And this is an example I give.

We've had parents who have rented the apartment next to their participant's apartment, six-month lease, thinking they were going to have to stay there for at least six months to get Johnny to acclimate. Well, I can tell you in this particular situation, it was three days. Johnny knocked on the door and said, "Mom and dad, would you mind going home? I'm doing just great here with my friends." And that's a story that was a little dramatic I thought, but that's the way it plays out.

They acclimate so quickly. It's like there's this yearning in them for all those years. They wanted friends. They wanted just to be able to go down the hall and knock on a door and watch that football game, do something with friends. I knew that we were on the right track when I heard one Friday night, and we didn't have anything planned, any activities. But I'd heard my son and others had just formed a group, eight or nine of them, and they went to a hamburger place and they were there just their peers were doing, just like their peers were doing.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right, exactly. What are we going to do? It's Friday night. Where can we have some fun? Yeah. how is The Mission Project supported?

Laura Jackson:

We rely a lot on our fundraising efforts. We have three bigger events a year. We have a gala Derby Day every year. We have a golf tournament, which is well attended, and then we have what we call the Independence Walk where the participants get kind of sponsors, that kind of thing. And then we go, we do a walk through Mission so we can say hi to the different business owners, make sure they know that we're here. And so those are kind of our major events. And then we do the usual nonprofit fundraising drives over the year, and then we also get several grants throughout the year as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay. So a variety of sources in addition to the family support that you received. What's your long-term goal for The Mission Project? You mentioned that this is a fairly young population, frankly, that you're serving and you're wanting them to eventually age in place, and so you've got to be thinking long-term. What is that long-term vision? And the corollary to that question is do you see it eventually being used, or maybe it already is, being used as a model and replicated in other places across the country?

Laura Jackson:

Absolutely. So some of that has already happened. We've crossed the country. It's kind of known as an ideal model. Some of that kind of technical assistance and replication has occurred in Austin. There is a replicable model there. As for The Mission Project itself in Mission, Kansas, we envision it continuing to bring in younger people transitioning to be able to have the opportunity to live independently and on their own. And just every year we get two or three more families. It takes about a year because we do a lot of work with the parents to be okay with living on their own, really understand community employment.

Kelly Scanlon:

So there's a lot of preparation that goes into welcoming a participant into the apartment eventually. There's a lot of front end work that goes on?

Laura Jackson:

Yes, it's kind of like an orientation process and making sure that they feel comfortable becoming a part of The Mission Project community and just living in the community on their own. For anyone going off to college or leaving their home as a 18-year-old, it's kind of the same thing, just needing support.

Kelly Scanlon:

You want to go, but there's a part of you that's still a little scared.

Laura Jackson:

Exactly.

Larry Rouse:

But we make presentations at various symposia and conferences, and we're always greeted with a lot of interest. And so ultimately, we've started the one group in Austin, Texas. We had a group in Cincinnati that was right on the verge, and then they had some issues, and so they didn't quite make it.

So we think that there is a real appetite for this project, and we don't want to be arrogant. We're the only one, we're the best. But it does seem people find out about us and they come and visit. So we show them around and show them what we do. And I think we want to make sure we continue to give back to Mission. They've been wonderful to us. We want to be equally wonderful to them. And so we're looking for ways that we can partner on different things.

We'd like to give back to the disability community in Kansas City in particular, and be a resource to people. We know there are people who would prefer group homes. It'll be better for them, but that doesn't mean that they can't still take advantage of some of our resources. It doesn't mean that parents of high school children or younger can't learn what the future could be, and so they can make a good choice on their own.

And then eventually we would like to maybe see some other cities kind of catch on to the model a little bit so that we have someone to talk to. We talk to Austin all the time, Austin, Texas, and they say, "This is really wonderful. Thank you for setting us up. Thank you for keeping us going." And we say, "No, thank you. We're learning from you." And we do. We learn from the decisions they make. We'd like to do that. We'd like to do that in association with people all around the country.

I think it's a good model. It can certainly take tweaks here and there, but what we'd like to do is we'd like to see it expand. We'd like to see it become a stronger presence here in Kansas City, more of a help to people who don't have the ability to join or maybe the interest to join. And so those are some of our goals, long and short term.

Kelly Scanlon:

Speaking of that larger presence in Kansas City, how can our listeners who may have heard this podcast episode get involved?

Laura Jackson:

Sure. We always need volunteers. If you just go to our website, there's a way to just sign up for emails. At our events we always need volunteers. For example, our Independence Walk we had students from Rockers Occupational therapy program come and volunteer, and they were critical to pull that event off, that kind of thing. We love having people that are experts in an area that can come in and teach a class, that kind of thing.

Larry Rouse:

There's another thing, and that is your listeners may not have a person in their family with a disability, but the chances are they will know someone. They will know a family that does. And if they can alert the people, their friends, to the fact that we have meetings twice a year in which we explain The Mission Project and how you would join The Mission Project to be alert to those and maybe to attend, I think it's, as a parent myself, it was a great solace to me to know that others were in the same position I was in and I think that we can be helpful in that regard too.

Kelly Scanlon:

And all this information, the ways that you can get involved, the meetings that you just spoke of, your programs, the Seven Pillars, it's all on the website, the missionproject.org.

Laura Jackson:

Yes, and people can feel free to contact me as well, laura.jackson@themissionproject.org.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, thank you both very much for all the work that you do and for your vision and all the work that you did to help get it started co-founding at nearly 20 years ago.

And Laura, you're a new and your position as executive director, just a few months, about six months now, I guess, right?

Laura Jackson:

Yeah.

Kelly Scanlon:

So congratulations to you on that. And just thank you both for all your time and effort, all you do for the community.

Laura Jackson:

Thank you, Kelly, for having us.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Laura Jackson and Larry Rouse for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Although we live in a society in which we are dependent on one another for many things, being independent, having the freedom to make decisions about our daily activities is something we value greatly.

Being able to do for ourselves gives us autonomy, pride, and dignity. This is especially true for adults who have an intellectual or developmental disability. They want to be able to do everyday things others do, and to accomplish goals just like everyone else.

When a community comes together to support an initiative like The Mission Project, these individuals can live, work, play, and participate in that community, maximizing their own potential and enriching the community too.

Thanks for tuning in today. We're banking on Kansas City, Country Club Bank member FDIC.

 

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