One of the most interesting aspects of my work is to meet with leaders of nonprofit groups.
I am especially interested in programs that serve children. That’s why I was so pleased recently to meet Torrie Dunlap, chief executive officer of Kids Included Together, or KIT.
Like its name suggests, KIT is all about inclusion.
To make that happen, the organization trains teachers, counselors and child-care workers in how best to serve children with — and without — disabilities. And how to get all kids to work, learn and play together.
That’s not always easy, even for child care and education professionals.
“We’ve had child-care providers in tears with gratitude,” Torrie said.
Launched locally in 1997, KIT has expanded worldwide. Its affiliates operate in 45 states and 10 countries. More than 20,000 teachers, child-care workers and recreation providers have completed KIT training.
Since receiving a call from the Pentagon in 2010, KIT has brought inclusion training to child-care and after-school programs on 245 of our military bases, many of them overseas.
In those settings, where repeated deployments can place families under extraordinary stress, KIT trainers have encountered peculiar needs and good cooperation.
“The military has been very committed to kids with special needs getting services,” Torrie said.
Closer to home, employees of recreational and child development programs in Cardiff, Del Mar and Poway Unified school districts receive KIT training. KIT also trains YMCA and Girl Scout counselors and docents at the San Diego Zoo.
Often, inclusion starts by offering basic accommodations to kids that need them. That can involve removing distractions from the learning environment, replacing a printed sign with one that shows an illustration, using basic sign language instead of speech or simply increasing the font size of printed or electronic type.
Another most-important first step is to understand the attitudes of trainees. Many of them are at the beginning of their careers and have little or no experience working with children with special needs. They might not know what to do, and that can be intimidating.
KIT’s inclusion specialists show trainees how to see things differently, and when necessary, present information in a different way.
“Don’t just say that 3 p.m. is snack time,” Torrie says. “Show the snack.”
What’s next for KIT?
In January, the organization will begin offering “KIT Certification.” Parents of children with disabilities can look for that certification when choosing child care, recreation or enrichment programs.
KIT is supported entirely by donors and fundraising, which means providers have access to KIT services at no charge. KIT’s inclusion specialists deliver live trainings to groups, observe in classrooms and provide one-on-one coaching. KIT also operates online learning and a call center for people to speak directly with an inclusion specialist.
One important message that KIT’s trainers communicate is that every child is different, regardless of ability.
“If you’ve met one kid with autism, you’ve met one kid with autism,” Torrie said. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach.”
Dave Roberts represents the Third District on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.