The thing that’s magical and special about Northside Learning Center is that our students are the majority here. In the rest of their lives, our students are the minority, right? People with disabilities exist as a minority population. Here, they're the majority, they're with their peers. They are never the “other”. And that's magical because none of our students have ever been in an educational situation where that's the case for them. And so they come here and it's about: What are your skills? What are your talents? And how can we help you expand on those?
They feel belonging and ownership, "part of" rather than "separate from." A lot of our students have been in cluster programs their entire educational career. They've been in that room at the back of the school where maybe they have lunch and PE with typically functioning peers. But otherwise nobody knows that they're there. Here, if we don't know your name, that's a problem. We know every single student and build those relationships.
When our students go and volunteer at St Joe's hospital or Salvation Army, people are welcoming them and saying, what gifts do you have? And how can we capitalize on that?
The community based model is creating an opportunity for our students to do their best learning in an environment where they're actually applying skills that they already have. It's: we're gonna go to the grocery store and learn how to shop. We're going to go to the hospital and work in their cafeteria, learn how to use the skills of cleaning and sorting and interacting with people in the community. We're gonna go to restaurants and learn skills around being a custodial engineer. In North Park, [students volunteer at] the bike shop at Bryn Mawr and Western, the Jewel, the Nature Center. They volunteer at the Salvation Army just South of Foster on Pulaski.
Marginalized groups or groups that are a minority, especially if it's a group of people with disabilities, they're kept "separate from" in a lot of ways. Like that's just the way that our society is set up as sad as it is. Whether it's in educational institutions, social settings, care facilities, whatever, even park district programming, like it's we have like special rec and then we have recreational programs for typically functioning. So having opportunities for our students to be connected with and working with people who are typically functioning in these various community settings, it gives our students opportunities to connect with people who they might not otherwise. And people who work at these facilities, whether it's, you know, a restaurant, a hospital, whatever to say, "oh, wow. This is an opportunity for me to see what people with disabilities can do and how they can be incorporated into the work we do here."
Lindsey Siemens was interviewed by a neighbor in June of 2022. She is pictured here with Northside Learning Center Principal Karren Ray.
The experiences that we have in this community are that people are generous and kind and open. It’s very rare to feel like our students aren't welcome to be hanging out at the park…. to be taking walks to the 7-11 and making purchases . . . at NEIU. We do recycling over there every day as well. Our experience in this community is warm and welcoming and inclusive. Maybe it's because there's diversity here. There's the university, there's the elementary school down there. There's the [North Park Village] Nature Center.