UNI Student Makes an Impact for Inclusion

When Kelsey Johnson babysits Beau Weichers, she’s usually in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, hair tied up in a messy bun. So when Beau saw Johnson on her wedding day—dressed in an elegant white gown, hair pulled back in a delicate half-up hairstyle, revealing a flawlessly made-up face—he was shocked.

“He just looked up at me like, ‘Wow!’” said Johnson.

Beau was the ring bearer for the ceremony. His sister, Delaney, who Johnson also babysits, was the flower girl and their mother was also in attendance. Not everyone would invite the family they babysit for to their wedding, much less give the kids such a major role in the ceremony, but Johnson has a special connection with Beau and his family.  

“This family is like my family,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t imagine not being a part of their life or them not being a part of mine.”

Their story began two years ago, in 2016, when Johnson was looking for work on the UNI job board. A special education major, Johnson was just looking for an easy part-time job to make some extra cash. But then she saw a posting for a job as a babysitter for a child with partial agenesis of the corpus callosum (a rare congenital disorder that prevents the hemispheres of the brain from communicating) and epilepsy. 

The family needed a sitter who would be able to meet these unique needs, and Johnson fit the bill. And she was excited to find an opportunity that would allow her to use her experience in special education. But the opportunity would turn out to be so much more than that, and would give Johnson the chance to support a groundbreaking community project.

Beau’s mom was leading an effort to bring an inclusive playground to the Cedar Falls community. Inclusive playgrounds are modeled after requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and are designed to accommodate children with various levels of ability. They often include softer surfaces, floors that allow wheelchairs to easily navigate the playground and structures that are more easily accessible to children with special needs (swings with seats that provide more physical support, for example). 

Frustrated by the lack of inclusive spaces for her to take her son to play, Beau’s mom, Amanda Wiechers, decided to raise money to build a playground in Cedar Falls where Beau, and other children with special needs, could easily play alongside other children. The project mirrored Johnson’s own passion for inclusion, which she brings to her work in the classroom, and she’d end up playing a huge role in the development of the park—but it started with her meeting the family to interview for a simple babysitting job.

Kelsey Johnson and Beau Wiechers
Beau Weichers and UNI graduate Kelsey Johnson.

It was magic from the moment she first met Beau.

“I immediately fell in love with him,” Johnson said. “His smile is contagious, his laugh is, like, out of this world. He has freckles all over his face—he’s just a little cutie pie.”

But Beau is more than just a cute face, he’s a child with unique needs and Johnson, now a graduate student getting her masters in special education, is specially suited to address those needs. UNI gave Johnson the training and experience required to work with children with needs like Beau’s.

“If I didn’t have the background knowledge that I’ve gained in the six years that I’ve worked for the Department of Special Ed, I don’t think I’d have the skills or the knowledge that it took for me to be able to advocate for Beau,” she said.

Johnson has always advocated for people with disabilities, especially in relation to her work in the classroom. Specifically, Johnson has a passion for inclusion—that is, the practice of including special needs students in general education classrooms—but through her work with Beau and meeting the Weichers family, she gained a new understanding of her work and discovered new avenues for advocacy. Specifically, it was the park project that opened Johnson’s eyes to the potential for inclusion in the community at large.

“We think of our community and you see doors that are wheelchair accessible and we think that’s inclusion, but if you look at a park, and the slides with the stairs, a child in a wheelchair wouldn’t be able to go down the slides,” she said. “I was shocked that we’re not taking more steps for advocacy and inclusion in our community, so when I learned that his mom was building an inclusive playground, I just thought that was fantastic. I jumped on board right away.”

Johnson began sharing information about the park on her social media accounts, and encouraged friends and family to donate to the project. But when she got engaged to her now-husband, Matthew Johnson, she had an idea of how to show support in a bigger way.

Some of Beau’s classmates started selling handmade friendship bracelets to help raise money for the park. Beau’s sister Delaney had made one of these “Bracelets for Beau,” in all white, for Johnson to wear on her wedding day. Johnson was inspired, and she and Matt bought 250 bracelets for their wedding guest —essentially a $250 donation to the park—and she presented them to guests on the big day with a big speech, describing her relationship with the Weichers family and encouraging guests to make a donation to the park project.

“We had 250 people who had no idea this was happening in the Cedar Valley and I got the chance to stand up and explain the importance of inclusion and this park,” Johnson said.

Johnson also made a big announcement during her speech—in addition to the $250 from the bracelets and any donations from guests, Johnson also planned to donate all monetary gifts she received to the park, as well. That’s when Weichers, who had been sitting in stunned silence, awed by Johnson’s generosity, finally spoke up.

“I audibly said, ‘No you aren’t,’ when she said it,” Weichers wrote in a blog post about the wedding. “I looked at my family and said, ‘Who does that?’”

But despite her disbelief, Weichers received close to $2,000 in donations from the wedding, including another $1,000 donation from Johnson and her husband. And when she received the check, Weichers was reminded about the kindness and generosity that drew her and Johnson together in the first place.

“I … realized I shouldn’t be surprised because this is Kelsey’s personality and who she is,” Weichers wrote on her blog.

The Place to Play Park project reached its $1 million fundraising goal in September 2018 and celebrated with a groundbreaking ceremony at the park’s future location of Greenhill Park. Construction will begin by summer 2019 and the park is expected to open that fall. But Johnson is already eager to enjoy the park and see the impact it has on the community.

“I’m just so ready to be able to take Beau to this park, and be able to play with him and his friends and his sister, and know that the park is safe for all kids,” she said. “I think our community, through this, is taking some really big steps for inclusion and I’m really excited to see this park and what it sparks people to do next.”

As for what Johnson plans to do next, after graduation she plans to teach in the Waterloo area. She wants to continue working with students with special needs and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, while continuing her other advocacy work. It’s all about helping to make positive, large-scale change in the Cedar Valley community. 

“I kind of live by the quote that, I alone cannot create all of the change that’s needed in this world, but I can make little dents that will create an impact,” she said. “So I think advocating for the park as one of my small dents, so I’ll just continue to make those small dents.”

If her experience with the Weichers family is anything to go by, sometimes what seems like a small “dent” can actually make a huge impact. In fact, according to Johnson, finding small ways to explore your passions is the key to reaching larger goals—and UNI can be a good place to start looking for those opportunities.

“There are always ways for you to support causes that you believe in. For me, I started really small with this part-time job and it kind of became my vision for individuals with disabilities,” she said. “There’s tons of organizations here at UNI, [so] there’s always ways for you to find your passion. Find your passion and stick with it and just spread it like wildfire.”