He didn't know anything about disability. But what he learned would make a lasting impact.
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Hasbro Be Fearless Be Kind

When he enrolled in an eighth-grade elective, Seth had no idea it would totally change his life.

In fact, he hadn't expected to take an unusual elective at all — that is, until his dad, a science teacher at his middle school, brought up the idea of Seth taking a class called Unified Leadership, which focused on intellectual disabilities.

Seth is, in many ways, just like most teens you would meet. He plays baseball, video games, and likes to work on dirt bikes. All this is pretty standard fare for a teenager growing up in Swartz Creek, a small city in southeast Michigan.


So a class about disabilities was a bit out of Seth’s wheelhouse. But he said, sure, he’d take it.

The decision not only turned him into a social activist, it also had a ripple effect across his whole school.

All photos courtesy of Kayla Bright.

Unified Leadership was — and still is — a relatively new class that's part of the Unified Champion Schools program, which is funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs. In it, general education and special education students study together, helping promote a broader view of disabilities and social inclusion.

“They learn about different disabilities: what that means for the people who have them, what that might look like, the different challenges they may have,” says Kayla Bright, the special education teacher who leads the class.

Students were surprised to find, for instance, that celebrities — like NFL running back Jamaal Charles — face intellectual disabilities and still succeed at the highest levels, Bright says.

Of course, studying the issues in a classroom isn’t the be-all and end-all for unified learning.

Students also take part in public awareness campaigns, such as the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign, which challenges inflammatory language used against people with disabilities.

They put up posters in school and even brought to school a well-known public speaker, Anthony Ianni, a former basketball player for Michigan State University who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as a young boy.

Sports also fits into unified learning in another more active way. The program, through its Unified Sports initiative, also incorporates Special Olympics sports and related activities so that the students can play a number of sports together, including basketball, flag football, weightlifting, and track and field. Its explicit aim is to promote social justice in the more than 5,000 K-12 schools currently participating in the program.

This program helped Seth realize that kids with disabilities often face discrimination on the playing field.

Before taking the class, Seth hadn’t really considered this form of widespread discrimination. The troubling truth is that disabled students face a barrage of social obstacles at school. While bullying is rampant in the U.S., students with disabilities are at an increased risk.

After befriending the special education students in his class, it didn’t take long for Seth to better understand their struggles. He realized that disabled people are often treated as outsiders and disrespected, even though they shouldn’t be. He saw an opportunity to make a difference, to fight discrimination and to change others’ minds.

“Training together and playing together,” the Special Olympics website notes, “is a quick path to friendship and understanding.”

Studies back this up. They reveal that Unified Sports teammates often spend time together outside competitions, and as they get to know each other, the barriers break down between those with and without disabilities.

And this has certainly been the case for Seth, who has made good friends while coaching bowling and while competing in sports like shot put, weightlifting, and long jump.

But Seth knew that fighting discrimination meant more than just playing sports.

That’s why he has undertaken the hard work of helping curb his abled friends’ prejudices and helping them gain a greater sense of empathy for people with disabilities.

In part, this means fighting verbal harassment. Seth has seen his friends called the R-word by bullies. He knows that not only is this disrespectful, it feeds into the pervasive narrative that disabled students are outsiders, that they deserve ridicule — a narrative that can cause terrible harm and division.  

And that’s why he’s become so passionate about the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign and urges others to disavow inflammatory language.

Though the Unified Leadership class just launched last year, it has already affected the rest of the school, thanks to the efforts of kids like Seth.

Kayla Bright, the class’s teacher, says that along with Seth, other general education students have begun hanging out with their special education peers. They've started seeing special ed students as potential friends, rather than outsiders to ridicule. Students who used to be shunned were now being included and treated with compassion.

It was a broad change that offers lessons for adults, too, Bright says — from the importance of empathy and acceptance to the language that we use to talk about disability.

Bright marvels at people like Seth, who are willing to stand up and confront discrimination rather than stand by and watch it happen. This fearlessness explains why Seth was recently awarded the Be Fearless Be Kind award from Special Olympics and Hasbro, the global play and entertainment behind hits brands like My Little Pony and Play-Doh.

Be Fearless Be Kind is the company's largest philanthropic initiative, designed to empower youth like Seth to have the empathy, compassion, and courage to stand up for others and be inclusive throughout their lives.

And though history books are filled with the stories of larger-than-life leaders, more often than not, the stuff of social change often boils down to these small acts of courage.

Befriending someone who’s different from you, repudiating hateful language, showing compassion for someone whose differences you’ve always feared — these are the things that result in real change.

That change is starting to happen on school playing fields. It's about time we all follow suit and get on the same team.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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