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A Place Where We All Belong

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On March 9, I will be producing and hosting CHIMEapalooza 2013: A Multi-media Celebration of the CHIME Mission. It is the second time I've put together this event, and if last year is any indication, it will be an inspiring, raucous, and illuminating night indeed.

The CHIME Institute is the nonprofit organization that operates four programs: Infant-Toddler, Preschool, Teacher Training, and the K-8 charter school where my children Charlotte (fifth grade) and Bodhi (second) attend. CHIME is the national leader in creating fully-inclusive educational models. But that only begins to tell the story.

My daughter has special needs. When she was 2 years old, she was not speaking and when she was 5 she barely knew her letters. It was a bewildering and anguished time. I watched other friends' kids learn with ease while my dear girl seemed to have trouble with everything. We did all the right things -- speech therapy, occupational therapy, play therapy -- and some of it helped. But all along there was a sense of isolation and genuine fear. I felt judgmental of my daughter for not being able to keep up with her peers -- and then hated myself for it. My husband and I felt worn out from her tantrums -- then pulled from deeper internal resources for patience and guidance from wherever we could find.

Charlotte could tolerate a typical classroom -- she did not have huge behavioral issues -- but I knew that when it came time to dive into real academics we'd need support. And we did. The school where she began first grade made it clear they couldn't support her, dismissing her humanity in a way that still makes my mother's heart boil with rage. But when I began looking for a school, I found out what many before me already knew: the options are woefully limited. The true special needs schools -- although their intention were often good -- felt like segregated ghettos, where there was no peer modeling for someone like Charlotte to emulate. But in a typical school, she'd be singled out for being "different," and that label would brand her permanently.

Then we found CHIME.

CHIME is the national leader in fully-inclusive educational models. In every CHIME classroom there is a mixture of students who are typical, gifted, and have special needs. The special needs may be academic, physical, or behavioral. Miraculously, they have developed practices such that students can access curriculum in the way that best works for them, all the while staying in the classroom for services like speech or occupational therapy. There is no "resource room" where children with IEPs (Individual Educational Programs) are sent away from their peers. Often there is an invisibility about which kids even have special needs. But when it's clear that a peer needs support, the culture is such that the students advocate for one another with a shocking lack of judgment.

Happily, Charlotte is thriving there, but so is Bodhi, who is academically advanced. Another result of CHIME's mission is that our own family is now desegregated. Charlotte and Bodhi can go to the same school where the inclusive philosophy underscores everything. The message is that everyone is working on something -- walking, sitting in a chair, long division, socialization -- and everyone deserves support in their hard work.

Three years ago I wrote of CHIME:

We build community by admitting our mutual need, not by pretending that we have none. And in the process, we are 'Chimed.' We start looking at the world differently. We accept things that were once scary, we understand things that were once strange, we admit that we don't have it all together, we get off the relentless hamster wheel of the 21st century and look around for a minute or two.

CHIME reminds us that all around us are people with triumphs and struggles, which mirror your own. They may look different than yours, and the world outside might judge those differences as more significant than the similarities. We at CHIME know better. We know that a the better world we can imagine is about seeing a piece of ourselves in everyone.

Come join us on Saturday, March 9 for an evening of original theater, film, music, and stories that celebrate CHIME's audacious mission of radial inclusion. Learn from these national leaders in academic instruction the how-to's of supporting all kinds of learners. But most of all, become a part of the CHIME family. We're just waiting for you!

Producer/writer/director Amy Brenneman has appeared in the television programs "NYPD Blue," "Judging Amy," and "Private Practice," and in films "Heat," "Casper," and "The Jane Austen Book Club." Because of The CHIME Institute in Los Angeles, Calif., she has become active in the disability community, speaking at conferences for CAL-TASH and the Council of Exceptional Children. She is married to filmmaker Brad Silberling.