At Thurston County Inclusion, Brogan Fitzgerald is a volunteer in the morning and a camper in the afternoon.
One hot, Friday morning at a small Olympia farm this past summer, Brogan’s volunteer responsibilities included helping a younger camper navigate a tour of the farm’s chicken run and vegetable fields. Then the two boys sat in the shade of a tree and potted plants before playing games.
Later, when it was his turn to be a camper, Brogan found equal delight seeing the farm, meeting new people and playing with an oversized checkers game. The 19-year-old from Olympia is quick to introduce himself and, in turn, asks people he meets for their name.
“He’s into people,” said Brant Fitzgerald, Brogan’s father. “He will remember anyone he’s ever met.”
Both Brogan and the younger camper he helped that morning have intellectual disabilities. Brogan’s dad said that, in some situations, Brogan’s behavior may seem unusual or require an explanation. But here at Thurston County Inclusion, no one needs to explain. The idea is that everyone — campers and volunteers — has fun.
Brogan is one of more than 115 campers and volunteers who participated this year in the startup program founded in 2019 to provide children and young adults with and without intellectual disabilities year-round opportunities to set aside daily concerns and experience joy.
“There’s just not a lot of opportunities for people with or without intellectual disabilities to engage with each other,” said executive director and co-founder Natalie Stagnone, a University of Washington graduate, Class of 2022.
With degrees in disability studies and neuroscience, Stagnone is a recipient of the Mary Gates Leadership Scholarship, Mary Gates Research Scholarship and Mary Gates Achievement Scholarship, awarded to a rising sophomore in Interdisciplinary Honors who has demonstrated academic excellence during their freshman year. She’s also received other campus recognitions including the Dennis Lang Award in Disability Studies and two Harlan Hahn Endowment Fund grants. In 2021 Stagnone was named to the Husky 100.
Stagnone grew up in Olympia and first developed friendships with people with intellectual disabilities in eighth grade.
“When I started interacting with my peers with intellectual disabilities, I learned how to communicate better, how many similarities I have to others who may be in different classes or into different things,” she said. “And that knowledge has been really valuable through high school, college and now starting my career.”
Now, in addition to running Thurston County Inclusion, she wants to attend medical school and ensure that her future medical practice is inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities.
Recognizing a need
After she graduated from high school, Stagnone realized that many of the activities — unified clubs and sports — that brought her together with friends outside of the classroom were unavailable during summer break.
“At the end of my senior year of high school, I was thinking about projects and things that could really help to correct that, and we launched the pilot summer camp,” Stagnone said. “This was a missing link in our community, so that’s how Thurston County Inclusion really sparked.”
The concept was built around creating a space for young people ages 5 to 21, where everyone feels welcome and included. Volunteers get to know the campers and then tailor programming to best match interests and abilities. Parents and caregivers, meanwhile, develop community and feel at ease knowing their children are well cared for.
“It’s kind of that word of mouth that has helped us grow as an organization, as parents are like, ‘OK, this was super cool,’” Stagnone said.
She’s now built multiple day camps that focus on various themes: bicycling, sailing, science, tie-dying, exploring the farm and more. Never more than an hour or two at a time, the sustained opportunities for relationship-building among campers and volunteers are invaluable and not available elsewhere, Stagnone said. And, despite setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s built an organization, secured funding from Thurston County, Washington state, local businesses, individuals, the UW and others, and begun to offer year-round activities — all at no cost to the participants.
There are existing camps for children with specific needs, such as people with autism, but nothing existed locally to bring together people with a range of disabilities with peers and adults without disabilities, Stagnone said.
“We’re one of the only programs in Thurston County that is specifically catered to all disability types, and also toward children without disabilities,” she said. “We welcome everybody to come to our programs, and that’s pretty unique.”
In 2021, Thurston County Inclusion operated with a $7,500 budget. This year, thanks in large part to a grant from the Washington Developmental Disabilities Administration, the budget’s grown to $28,500, and is allowing Stagnone and another Thurston County Inclusion staff person to draw a modest salary for the first time.
“We greatly appreciate the work that TCI does for our county by expanding our reach and promoting new activities for all ability levels,” said Mark Moffett, social services manager for Thurston and Mason counties.
While most of Thurston County’s efforts are focused on employment for the roughly 450 adults with developmental disabilities known to reside there, the county also works with contractors to improve the quality of life, as well, for people with disabilities of all ages. That’s where Thurston County Inclusion fits in.
TCI provides additional recreational events in Thurston County, supports families through advocacy and informational meetings, and provides new opportunities in an inclusive and encouraging environment, Moffett said.
Thurston County Inclusion’s programs are designed with as few barriers as possible. If a child experiences sensory overload, there’s space to step away and a volunteer to keep them company. If another child needs to run, there’s room to do that and a volunteer like Brogan to keep pace. Rather than forcing a camper to adapt to an environment, Thurston County Inclusion is focused on creating space for people with a variety of needs.
Photos above: Campers, volunteers and parents enjoy various activities at Thurston County Inclusion’s summer camps.
“It’s fun to come hang out with friends,” said Megan Parks, 22, who identifies as having an intellectual disability and enjoys working with Stagnone. “She is one of my greatest friends and I love her dearly.”
Parks is Thurston County Inclusion’s board vice president and a frequent volunteer at the camps.
“It’s been a great summer and I’m really happy about it,” said Parks, who loves basketball, bowling, and track and field, and works at a jewelry store. Being on the Thurston County Inclusion board, she said, makes her feel proud and accomplished.
The board is representative of the population the organization is serving, Stagnone said. There are volunteers, teachers, parents and students — with and without intellectual disabilities.
“That’s really important,” she said, “because we can cater our programs toward what’s going to be most impactful and important and valuable for our community.”
Stagnone’s senior thesis and department honors project, funded by UW grants, was the creation of a 118-page volunteer training manual for Thurston County Inclusion that provides background on understanding and engaging with people with intellectual disabilities in a meaningful and respectful way.
The manual covers some of the basics of Disability Studies as an academic field, synthesized for a wide, non-academic audience: definitions, models, global perspectives on disabilities, laws and other important information. After piloting the manual during summer 2021, Stagnone created a second, 156-page companion manual.
“One version, which I call the complete version, has all the texts and everything,” she said. “The other is the condensed version, and it’s in more of an easy-to-read format so it’s easier for people with intellectual disabilities, dyslexia or English as a second language.”
One of Stagnone’s mentors at the UW is Heather Evans, an assistant teaching professor in Disability Studies, Sociology and Law, Societies & Justice. Many of the classes Evans teaches to undergraduates span academic disciplines, so she’s accustomed to meeting students from across the university. Still, Evans said she was surprised a few years ago to see a first-year student in one of her advanced classes. That’s how she met Stagnone.
“Sure enough, it was her first quarter as a freshman at the UW, she took this class designed for juniors and seniors and just knocked it out of the park,” Evans said. “Natalie is exceptional in a lot of ways, but she was so curious and inquisitive and open to all sorts of new ideas.”
In high school, Stagnone saw that some of her friends were assigned to special education classrooms or limited to certain activities. At UW, she learned that it’s possible to create opportunities that are equalizing, integrating and welcoming.
“I think disabilities, and Disability Studies in particular, was one of those places where I saw everything that we talked about reflected in what I was doing, which was really, really exciting, and definitely made it more impactful,” Stagnone said.
Today, she’s supporting her friends to form connections that will benefit all of them throughout their lives.
“It is those connections that really do it,” Stagnone said. “I am constantly thinking of new ideas to really improve our community and make it more inclusive.”
See a related story from KING 5.
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This story has been updated to include its original publication date.
Originally published Oct. 24, 2022