CHESTERTON — The stars shone on the red carpet as students with special needs got their five minutes of fame.
Preceded by a dance down the red carpet, class by class of Westchester Intermediate School students presented five-minute documentaries — the product of a year’s work learning to capture photos and video, interview subjects and edit a final project using the school’s iPads.
But, unlike in most classes, Westchester’s language arts curriculum this year went a step further, introducing about a third of the school’s sixth-grade students to a “Nora friend.”
“When I first learned about it, I thought it was a really good idea because everyone should be noticed,” Westchester sixth-grader Natalie McGrogan said. “Everyone is good in their own way.”
The Nora Project is a national nonprofit started by Lauren Schrero after seeking to demystify disabilities. Her daughter, Nora, was born at just 1 pound and underwent five surgeries by the age of 2.
The nonprofit provides partner schools with an inclusive curriculum focused on building friendship and empathy between students and their peers with disabilities.
The project, founded in 2016, has since grown to include more than 80 classrooms in the Chicagoland area, as well as in Georgia and Maryland, according to The Nora Project website.
After seeing a story about the Chicago-born nonprofit on WGN, special education teacher Brian Doolin said he reached out to Schrero last year to learn how he could bring the program to his school.
With the support of his school’s administrators, Doolin applied to The Nora Project, which provides all materials and training for the yearlong classroom curriculum free to the school. In August, Westchester became the first school in Indiana to offer the program.
“I wanted our kids to learn that they have a lot more in common than they realize,” Doolin said. “It’s easy to focus on the negatives or the differences, but this year we’re learning how to focus on what we have in common.”
Westchester now has 80 Duneland students, or about a third of the intermediate school’s sixth-grade class, working with nine Nora friends.
The program arranges monthly classroom visits with group activities such as a pickup basketball game or dance party allowing students to develop relationships with their Nora friends.
The Nora Project curriculum includes educational elements before students meet their Nora friends so they can better understand their friends’ individual needs before their first.
Throughout the yearlong class, students capture photos and video interviews with their peers and their Nora friends’ family to share what they’ve learned about disabilities and friendships.
Leslie Nuss, mom of 10-year-old Nora friend Harry Bamesberger, said the program is a reflection of generational growth in student becoming more accepting and inclusive of students with disabilities.
Bamesberger had a stroke when he was born, Nuss said, and now has Down syndrome, epilepsy and hemiplegia, a paralysis usually of one side of the body. Communicating with Bamesberger, who is nonverbal, can be difficult. Nuss said she is excited to see the students take time to get to know her son.
It all culminates in a red carpet night screening, where Nora friends and students premiere their documentaries for the community.
Nuss, a singer-songwriter, helped close the Red Carpet Night with a performance of an original song titled “Empathy,” written with inspiration from the Duneland students’ definitions of empathy and normality.
“I find it very moving because they’re going to be the future leaders,” Nuss said. “They’re going to see that these people exist, and they may not have the exact same kind of friendship, but they can still hangout.”