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The Genesis of Inclusion

How one person decided to change his community through accessible play

Since starting this blog and sensory friendly list, I can’t help but be discouraged when I find a state that doesn’t have many offerings for our special community. Most of the time, I find myself wanting to figure out a way to create local events for those under-served areas, which is exactly what our first guest blogger, Zack Martin did in the Spring of 2017. In his role as Junior Vice President of Sales for America’s Incredible Pizza Company, Zack helped create the Incredible Buddies program at their Springfield, MO store. Here is Zack’s story:

The Incredible Buddies program was created by a number of dedicated individuals across multiple organizations, starting with our Buddy Squad here at Incredible Pizza Company. It began with a simple idea, and I immediately knew that I needed a lot of help! In my career I’ve been fortunate to work with groups of individuals who have special needs or sensory challenges, and I always knew I wanted to do more. While nobody in my personal circle of family and friends has experienced the challenges of living with developmental disabilities or other special needs, I couldn’t overlook the fact that there are just so many families working through this, and the stigma that surrounds these incredible people. I’m thankful that The Arc of the Ozarks, Camp Barnabas, and Down Syndrome Group of the Ozarks were able to help make this idea a reality.

I began to imagine what it might be like to be one of these individuals, or their families. I began to imagine having to make a tough decision of whether or not to venture out to a public setting with my child, or if it would just be easier to stay at home. I began to imagine what it would be like to support someone close to me through these challenges. The financial challenges, the social challenges. I began to imagine a lot of things, and once you start down that path you have to be a real certain kind of person to ignore the call to action. I’ve been very pleased over the last few months to see other businesses joining in on these efforts, and am heartened for the future.

Out of all these thoughts, came determination.

There were many obstacles. How do we make sure we are communicating properly with these kids, and their families. How do we make sure to have the right team in place to make up what we call our “Buddy Squad”? What if we fail at this? What if we mess up? What if we don’t make the impact we want to make? What if we start something we can’t see through? How do we handle meltdowns with the right spirit and demeanor? I’ll be honest, it was frightening in a way. This is something that we MUST do right, or it is better to not do it at all.

Then I met Elizabeth Obrey and Angie Perryman, two Family Advocates from The Arc of the Ozarks (an organization that I have worked with numerous times over the years) and I asked for help and guidance. Elizabeth shared a personal story with me that had happened years ago at Incredible Pizza, where she was hesitant to have her son try our bumper cars. She really thought it would be too much for him on that day, yet one of our staff encouraged her to let him just try it, and that we could always stop the ride at any point. Hand over hand, our staff member helped Nathan enjoy his first bumper car ride and it is now one of his favorite things to do. Elizabeth shared with me the feelings that she experienced seeing her son do something out of his comfort zone for the first time, and seeing the smile on his face. I could tell that she really had a personal interest in helping us so that other parents and families could share in that same feeling.

Angie, Elizabeth, and I began to do what we refer to as a feasibility study. What CAN we do, to make our restaurant and gameroom MORE accessible? Is this even possible? Several meetings and many hours later, we had a game plan. Lowering the sounds of our games by 60%, eliminating abrasive lights and lighting patterns where possible, providing noise dampening headphones free of charge as well as dark sunglasses to help with the sounds and lights that we couldn’t control. Providing large signs to warn of “louder zones”, as well as handouts and a new website with information on what to expect if you were to attend an Incredible Buddies event. Most importantly, they helped us LEARN. Elizabeth and Angie put together customized educational and training workshops for our Buddy Squad. We learned about the senses that are affected by various disabilities, and how those sensitivities might manifest themselves through various behaviors. We learned what signs to look for to help us know if we need to distract, encourage, or support. Also important, we made sure that it was a safe space where we could be comfortable with our own feelings, apprehensions, questions, and concerns.

This took a lot of work but during our first event on March 4th, we all knew we just accomplished something truly awesome. The comments made to our team by the 30+ families that attended, as well as later online, showcased what a NEED there is for more acceptance, encouragement, and support for these families.

We’re very proud of the work we are doing, but there is still so much room to grow this program and the impact it has on our local families. We ultimately hope to inspire action within other businesses. If we can turn a 60,000 square foot facility known for how loud and crazy it is into a place where families can come together to work through sensory issues and have fun all the while, I feel very hopeful for any other business that wants to get involved with this community of people. We are very thankful for how supportive our guests have been thus far, and are so excited to see this program continue to grow.

“Incredible Buddies is a journey. It’s a journey for the families that may have never been able to do something like this before. It’s a journey for these very loving kids, to be able to have a place where they can try new things without fear or anxiety, and it’s a journey for our employees who are learning great things every day in working, playing, and laughing with some truly incredible new friends.”

Thank you to Zack for sharing his story with us, and more importantly, for creating such a fun event for all families!

#incrediblebuddies #inclusion #autism #specialneeds #familyfun #play #games

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