Disabilities are not Life-Defining

Every young person deserves to have a voice in the experiences that shape their lives, believes College of Education alumna Kim Meares.

Meares, MEd Youth Development '13, is a program director at Opportunity Knocks, a non-profit organization in River Forest. Opened in early 2010, the organization provides social, recreational and life-skills programming for young adults living with developmental disabilities.

Meares runs the organization’s Life Shop, a program in its pilot stage that she helped launch last year.

“The whole purpose of the program is to provide a place where young people can come, feel safe and work with coaches to do the things they want to do [in life],” Meares said.

Life Shop is a way for those living with developmental disabilities to continue their education after they turn 22, something that can be a challenge under the current system.

At 18, Special Needs student in Illinois are given the choice between graduation or continuing on in a transitional skills program. But at 22, the financial and vocational help provided by the state ends, often leaving these young adults without options, Meares said.

“It’s very difficult to find solutions to this gap once they age out of the public school system,” Meares said. “With Life Shop, the whole point was to provide another resource for these young people to explore life beyond high school.”

Meares, the former recreation program director at Opportunity Knocks, said the Life Shop program gives the participants– called “warriors”– an active role in their learning.

Meares learned from an early age to empathize with individuals living with disabilities– her cousin was afflicted with a genetic disease and Meares saw first-hand the mistreatment she received from people who would often view her differently.

It’s an unfortunate illness in our country, Meares said.

“A lot of people fall through the cracks,” Meares said. “The way our society is, people who are different have been historically marginalized.”

Meares outward passion for equitable treatment and her focus on disability studies grew as an undergrad in UIC’s Kinesiology Department, where she worked in the university’s Disability Research Facility.  In the Youth Development department, Meares continued to hone her focus on improving the quality of life for young people with Special Needs.

There are currently 10 people in the pilot program, which has three focuses: Health & Wellness, Community Integration and Improving Life Skills.  Life Shop provides the Warriors with opportunities to undertake challenges in the neighborhood, as well as give back to the community.

“A young person needs to be able to explore and be challenged in ways that build their character and make them feel confident,” Meares said. “Learning isn’t real unless you have the opportunity to play with it– when you do, you are building life experience.”