Abilities Awareness Program inspires young students to celebrate differences

Kevin Johnson playing basketball with students during his visit.

Students at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School in Encinitas are learning important life lessons about physical challenges through a program called Abilities Awareness. The school’s PTA collaborates with school administrators to put on a week of different activities to promote empathy, acceptance and appreciation of people’s ability differences.

Kate Koschei
Kate Koschei Courtesy

PTA members Kate Koschei and Sheila O’Connor plan the event each year. The very first one took place in 2014.The highlight of the program is the presentation of different speakers who’ve overcome their challenges and are willing to share their journey.

This year, extreme athlete Jeremy McGhee was one of the speakers. McGhee became paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle crash, then transformed himself into a hardcore athlete. McGhee became the first paraplegic to climb and descend a major back-country ski route in the Eastern Sierras, using only his arms. A documentary film on McGhee’s life was also shown and he autographed posters for students after the movie.

Past speakers include Kevin Johnson, who survived an 80-foot zipline fall in 2009 while working as a tour guide. Now as a double amputee and blind in his right eye, Johnson told students that his life is even more active after the accident, and he’s more motivated than ever to do everything from snowboarding to triathlons. Johnson even took the time to play basketball with some of the students.

Another speaker has been Denise Mueller-Korenek, who is the world’s fastest cyclist, racing at 183.9 miles per hour in 2018. Mueller-Korenek also has Attention Deficit Disorder, and she told students the focus and speed of racing settles her.

Along with such inspiring speakers, The Learning Resource at Paul Ecke Central Elementary also hosts several interactive stations designed to simulate different disabilities so that students could experience different challenges. Lots of discussion followed about inclusion, making friends and celebrating differences. Koschei, who has two children at the school, realizes the importance of bringing awareness to disability at a young age.

Jeremy visit
Jeremy McGhee with students Courtesy

“I think it is important for children to know that a person can experience and accomplish what is important to them even in the setting of having challenges,” she explains. “Children need to know that having a disability, whatever the level of limitation, cannot dissuade them from pursuing their passion in life. My goal is to educate the students and staff about people with different abilities, and to eliminate misconceptions and misunderstandings about people with disabilities.

“This is especially important for children because attitudes develop during childhood by watching and listening to peers, teachers and family. I want the children to know that everyone has different abilities, talents and qualities that make us unique. However, we are the same in one way -- we want other people to understand us, to ‘see’ us.”

Professionally, Koschei is in the right place to be able to offer these inspiring speakers. She’s an occupational therapist at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas in the outpatient Brain Injury Day Treatment program.

“Working in patient care, I have the privilege to meet many amazing people who overcome adversity and persevere through difficult times. I am fortunate that some of these people want to share their stories to inspire others. So many of our speakers over the years have been people I’ve had the honor of knowing during their rehabilitation process. We have also reached out to amazing organizations that promote community outreach by having speakers available, such as the Challenged Athletes Foundation.”

Koschei says students are often in awe of the speakers during their presentations and continue to talk about the experience with their families at home. Parents have told her that the presentations have led to insightful, open dialogue at the dinner table, while empowering students to be more respectful of people with disabilities.

“I appreciate that our speakers infuse the students with motivation and self-confidence,” she shares, “showing them that there are no limits in life. Sometimes the road to achievement is more steep and rocky, but with the right mind set, there are no limits to your ability to succeed.”

Koschei says she has several more years at the school as a PTA parent since her son is now in fourth grade and her daughter is in first grade. She hopes to continue to grow the Abilities Awareness program and bring more inspiring and dynamic speakers to the school in the coming years.