Editor’s Note: Through our signature Community Grants program, we annually invest in nonprofits that expand opportunities and resources for all Greater Miami residents. As we strengthen this commitment in 2020, we’ve expanded Community Grants to include the new Inclusion Fund (Inclusion of People with Diverse Abilities), which will support initiatives for equitable access to resources and community integration of people living with disabilities. Pictured: Volunteers from The WOW Center at Farm Share. 

At Stephanie Perez-Julio’s wedding, guests were all smiles during the brightly colored outdoor ceremony, especially Ana María’s. Stephanie first met her while teaching art at  The WOW Center, a Give Miami Day participating nonprofit that serves more than 200 adults with developmental disabilities from across Miami-Dade County.

“Throughout the years, we’ve chatted about our boyfriends, issues with coworkers, beauty and fashion … typical girl talk that mostly took place while painting, working on ceramics or drawing,” Stephanie said. “Now, as WOW’s community manager, I take her out around Miami to show her the city while we brainstorm social media campaigns.”

The two women developed a close friendship. When Ana María’s mother passed away, she leaned on Stephanie for support. And, when Stephanie got engaged, Ana María gushed with excitement. “Ana María is my biggest hype queen! She’s brave, sassy and funny, and I knew I wanted her to be a part of my day,” Stephanie said. “So, I asked her to be one of my bridesmaids.”

Pictured: Stephanie Perez-Julio with her bridesmaids

At The Miami Foundation, we also strive to connect all Greater Miamians with opportunities so that they can realize their potential and thrive. This year, we are pleased to reinforce our dedication to all residents by establishing the Inclusion Fund (Inclusion of People with Diverse Abilities) within Community Grants. The Fund expands the availability of community resources for people living with disabilities so they can thrive in productive, purposeful lives and are a part of life in our community.

I had the opportunity to visit WOW and see firsthand how the nonprofit brings smiles to clients like Ana María by helping them participate fully in their community. WOW was one of many organizations that my colleagues and I visited to learn about how people living with disabilities define inclusion and how each of us has a role to play in achieving an inclusive community. Our “listening tour” also took us to Best Buddies South Florida, PATCHES PPEC and Zoo Miami.

Nearly 1 million people visit Zoo Miami each year, and the organization works hard to ensure its gats are open – and welcoming – to everyone. In 2018, staff completed training to serve guests with autism and sensory needs, becoming the first zoo in Florida to earn a Certified Autism Center designation.

Through its Enriching Science program, the zoo brings animals and wildlife education directly to local students with disabilities, an effort the Foundation supported in 2019 through the Animal Welfare and Animal-Assisted Therapy Fund. During our visit, smiling students interacted with animals like hedgehogs, turtles and snakes. They quickly asked about the creatures’ habitats, favorite foods, and whether or not the snake really wasn’t venomous. The program also integrated field trips for students to visit their new favorite animals at the zoo. Parents and teachers remarked they might otherwise have only ever seen the animals in books.

We believe that true inclusion means integrating people living with disabilities into all aspects of community life. Often, this means small actions like an invitation to a wedding or to a policy discussion. It also means that our community must take big steps forward to invest in critical resources and opportunities. That’s why the Foundation already supports programs like Zoo Miami’s Enriching Science and Easterseals South Florida’s Life Skills Centers, which create long-term smiles by preparing young adults with disabilities to enter the workforce and lead active, productive lives through vocational and life skills programs. With support from The Jorge M. Pérez Family Foundation at The Miami Foundation, Easterseals will expand the program to two new sites located across Miami-Dade County, helping more students move forward on their journeys toward purpose and community integration.

As we continue to learn more about inclusion from our partners and allies – and hold ourselves increasingly accountable – we look forward to applying our findings across all of our work. Nonprofits will notice that this year’s Community Grants proposal questions include a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion across disability status as well as race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and geography.

We’ll also share what we learn with you. As a first step, one of the focus areas of the Inclusion Fund is “community inclusion,” intended for organizations with core missions outside of the disabilities community. We hope to support them to act, as Zoo Miami has, by investing in new trainings, infrastructure and programs that make their work more inclusive.

You, too, can get involved by joining donors in supporting the Inclusion Fund or by connecting with local nonprofits championing the cause.

At a recent convening of disabilities community practitioners brought together by the Foundation, there was one consistent message: “Inclusion of everyone is the only way to achieve worthwhile, sustainable progress in our community.” Together with you, our partners and allies, let’s build abundant opportunity for all.

Pre-proposal applications to the 2020 Community Grants program are due by February 14th. Click here to learn more and apply. 

Valerie Crum is senior programs associate at The Miami Foundation.

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