For ten years, Pathways for Exceptional Children, a Montville-based program that promotes inclusion of children of all abilities in activities and programs, has been inspiring kids.
Pathways will be celebrating its decade anniversary on Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the back parking lot of with special performances from several kids involved in the program, carnival-type activities and more.
Melinda Jennis, president of Pathways, said she started the organization because of her personal experiences with her multiply disabled son.
"I had a son with multiple disabilities and there was no place for him to go or things for him to do at all," Jennis said.
She organized a group of parents who began developing after school and weekend programs for disabled children ages 3 to 5. They decided to also have middle school and high school students get involved in a one-on-one mentoring program, which began with 14 hand-picked mentors working with the disabled kids during games and projects.
Ten years later, the program has grown tremendously, Jennis said.
"Today, we have 40 programs that we run in Montville alone and now it has become so inclusive over the past 10 years that it's not even just for children with disabilities," she said.
The age of kids involved now ranges from 3 to 21 and the programs kids can choose to become involved in include musical programs, where kids have come together to form a rock band, or a new writing program starting soon where kids will spend some time on a horse farm writing about their experiences.
Ashley Van Riper, 17, of , is a mentor who has helped develop a horseback riding program through Pathways. She said she was inspired to get involved because of her disabled sister and has learned so much from the kids she has mentored.
"You can learn anyone can do anything, so a lot of times people think because they have disabilities they can't do certain things, but you can learn a lot from them because they can do so much," she said.
Programming has expanded for the mentors as well and 15 mentors are involved in a leadership program where they accompany Jennis to schools around the area, presenting at assemblies about what it means to be a leader and promoting anti-bullying through the promotion of inclusion with the "Include ME!" program. The "Include ME!" program, and Pathways as a whole, has been commended by the New Jersey Senate and General Assembly.
Nayna Shah, 16, of Morris Plains, is a leadership mentor and said working with the program has helped her develop her own leadership skills while helping others learn. She said she has learned patience and cooperation and is excited that she has helped to be a part of what she called an inclusion "movement" that helps kids realize that they are not alone if they feel excluded. The leadership mentors work to educate students so that everyone can become more included.
"A lot of kids come up to us and say, 'Hey, I don't have a disability, but I still feel like I'm excluded in my school.' Everyone at one point in their life has felt not included," she said.
Shah said she has been volunteering with Pathways since 2008 when Jennis visited her own school. Now a junior at Morristown High School, Shah said the program has inspired her to be a pediatrician, as she has gained interest in working with children.
"I see that working with kids is probably a cool thing to do with your life," she said.
While Pathways is an organization essentially run by volunteers, Jennis said the volunteers are carefully chosen and only a select number of them are given community service credits for their work.
"What we're trying to not have is people who come in and just want to put us on their resume," Jennis said.
Jennis said she is pleased with the way the program has transformed over the past ten years and that Pathways hopes to continue to encourage children to find their passions and share them with others through the program.