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The New Do-Gooders

The Nora Project

From left: Amanda Martinsen, Lauren Schrero, and Adam Levy

The Problem:Shunning and social isolation of kids with disabilities

The Fix:A school curriculum that connects disabled kids with their classmates and teaches empathy

The Backstory:The situation was difficult enough for Lauren Schrero and her husband, Adam Levy, after their daughter, Nora, who was born prematurely, suffered complications from surgery that left her brain damaged. Making matters worse was the reaction Schrero felt when she tried to take Nora out, like to the park: “People wouldn’t know how to approach us,” she says. The Highland Park lawyer told her cousin Amanda Martinsen, an elementary school teacher, about her fears that Nora would spend her life isolated and friendless. That’s when the light bulb went on: Why not introduce children with disabilities to other students through a concerted program in schools?

Thus began the Nora Project in 2016. Using a curriculum Martinsen designed (for which she won the Illinois Education Association’s Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award), the Nora Project’s yearlong programs start with role-playing and mindfulness exercises, teaching empathy to the students before they are introduced to the disabled children, often from the same school or nearby ones. The programs culminate with the students creating documentaries on iPads about their “Nora friends.”

In three years, the project has blossomed from one school — Martinsen’s in Glenview — to 30 in the Chicago area and one each in suburban Atlanta and Baltimore, spanning classrooms from second grade to high school. “Giving students this close-up look demystifies disabilities,” says Schrero, now the group’s executive director.

Where you come in:To bring the project to your school, apply at thenoraproject.ngo. One teacher must attend a two-day summer training camp before a school can get approval.

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