Written by Mary Alialoney
The Disability Defenders is a student-run organization at Marist High School that accepts those who differ developmentally and strive to spread awareness for the community to do the same. The group is hosting its first “Disability Day” from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday, July 16 at the school, 4200 W. 115th St., Chicago.
The event is a day where people with disabilities and members of the local community can come together to enjoy food, music, and activities all while celebrating each other’s differences and focusing on each other’s’ similarities.
Alex Lyons, Marist Class of ’16, founded the Disability Defenders after being inspired by his own experiences working with people with disabilities. During his first years at Marist, Lyons was a member of the Peace Builders Initiative, a program of the Bernardin Center at the Catholic Theological Union that prepares youth from 33 Catholic high school communities in the Chicago area for active leadership roles in peacemaking and reconciliation.
Having enjoyed his time with the Peace Builders Initiative, Lyons decided to partake in the Marist Senior Service program. Senior Service provides senior students at Marist the opportunity to travel to a site within the local community to help and serve those in need.
Lyons completed his Senior Service at Park Lawn in Oak Lawn, where he worked closely with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“It was only an hour and 10 minutes out of my day, but it was the best hour and 10 minutes of my day,” Lyons said of his Senior Service experience. The time he spent with members of the Park Lawn community motivated him to create an event that would celebrate and assimilate people with disabilities into the broader local community.
According to Lyons, the driving idea behind the Disability Day event is to bring people together.
“People with disabilities are pushed aside. They’re put into separate schools and living communities, which provide support, attention, and care, but the separation lingers beyond that. These people are people and they live their lives just like we do – they laugh, they cry, they love. We’re all just people. Disability Day is a way to bring “normal” people together with other “normal” people for a day of fun,” Lyons said.
Lyons, the director of the Disability Defenders, has put together a team of 18 students who have spent their summer working hard to put on a great event. Elizabeth Seip, Marist Class of ’16 and the organization’s marketing director, organized fundraising efforts for the event and managed the event cost, which included finding food vendors and other donors or organizations who wanted to lend services to the event.
Seip shares Lyons sentiments of inclusion and celebration surrounding Disability Day. “We want to spread awareness and show solidarity to people with disabilities. Our community is their community, and this day is a way to bring everyone together,” Seip said.
Ellie Marino, who will be a senior next year at Marist, will take on the role of director of the Disability Defenders and is learning the ropes by working closely with Lyons. Marino said he has gained invaluable experience in event planning and has seen the true range of duties that goes into developing a successful event.
“You do big things, like booking a band to play at the event, but then you stop and think about the little things, like ‘wait… who can we get to donate spoons,’” Marino said.
Marino has a family member with a disability, so being a Disability Defender holds a special place in her heart.
“We want to really connect with the community at the event. So many people know someone with a disability or know people who have friends, family members, or loved ones with disabilities, so the celebration of disabilities touches home with a lot of people.”
The Disability Defenders are working closely with Park Lawn, Elim Christian Services and Sertoma Centre to make Disability Day in July a fundraising success for participants of these organizations. The plan for the event, according to Lyons, is to raise enough money to donate all proceeds back to each organization.
Frank M. Portada, Employment and Day Services director at Park Lawn, is appreciative of the Disability Defenders’ efforts to celebrate disabilities.
“The students at Marist have been wonderful in their support of Park Lawn and we’re excited to have fun at the event. The students have made sure to ask what kinds of foods are easiest for our participants with disabilities to eat and have made sure the venue is comfortable and welcoming for all the different needs of our participants,” Portada said.
Disability Day will include two live bands, a magician, balloon animals, a stilt-walker, face painting, and more, with plenty of food.
“It’s going to be like a festival where the whole family can have fun,” Lyons said of the event.
There are over 200 volunteers who will be helping at Disability Day, including the Knights of Columbus and local Girl Scout troops. Orland Park District and St. Alexander in Palos Heights have provided funding, promotional services, and connections to vendors and entertainment for the event.
If interested, send checks and donations to Marist High School at 4200 W. 115th St., Chicago IL, 60655 with “Disability Day” in the memo.