There are moments in life that define individual character. Embracing all people, without regard to physical appearances or differences, is one such yardstick action generally found in common by all.

The Community Inclusion Program (CIP) seeks to make this mission a reality through celebrating disability awareness and building relationships.

In existence for more than 20 years, CIP is a PAVE (Partnerships for Action Voices for Empowerment) program. The group organizes monthly events aimed at providing information, resources surrounding technology, and social events for special needs families. Michele Lehosky, one of the CIP coordinators and PAVE program director. She said “reaching out to all families” as being a primary goal.

Essentially, there are two components within CIP. Parents and adults meet to take part in activities at area schools lead by Lehosky. At the same time, the Youth Leadership Team arranges games, discussions, and projects for the teen and under crowd. This youth team is made up of students with and without disabilities who want to make a difference in the community. There are also specific youth program meetings throughout the year for orientation, training, and social activities.

Peninsula High School teacher Wendy Christiansen and PAVE employee Milissa Burkey are the adults who help the Youth Leadership Team facilitate events.

“The activities for the youth portion of CIP are student driven and have included great opportunities like overnight retreats,” Christiansen said. With local volunteers and student participation, feedback on the success of meetings and topics can change to best fulfill the needs of the community.

According to Lehosky, students who participate in CIP Youth Leadership Team learn about networking, peer mentoring, self-advocacy, and the power of acceptance.

“Community service requirements for graduation can be completed through this program and the United Way of Pierce County partners with area districts to reward volunteerism with a school letter in community service,” Lehosky said.

One of the most popular CIP meetings is the December pancake breakfast. Involvement from Kiwanis, FISH, and Peninsula School District bring together people of all abilities. Attendees are encouraged to donate can goods and are served a hearty meal while listening to a Minter Creek Elementary choral group directed by music teacher Paula DeMoss.

Two large events are still to come for CIP during this school year. The first is a Bingo Night on April 24 at PHS that senior Dylan Payne helps run. He encourages families to come and take part “because it is fun.” This event also funds the CIP program. The next is a dance on May 16, where students socialize and junior Josh VanMechelen emphatically says is a “great place to be with friends.”

Currently, Key Peninsula Middle School and the KP elementary schools are not meeting sites. “Vaughn used to be seven or eight years ago,” Christiansen said, “but there was a shift in attendance, and CIP needs to listen to the community. It would be great to build a connection back in the KP area though.”

 For information on CIP and PAVE, visit the wapave.org or call (253) 565-2266. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, friends, or anyone with or without disabilities is welcome.

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