Elburn resident’s Rising Lights Project brings opportunities to the disabled

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Former special education teacher Jaimie Valentini said she saw a need in the community that wasn’t being met.

The Elburn resident always has passionately felt that individuals and families impacted by disability should have a sense of belonging and connection with their communities.

So last fall, Valentini founded Rising Lights Project, a nonprofit organization that is “dedicated to creating environments for individuals impacted by disability to learn, laugh, thrive and engage with the Fox Valley community.” The group’s mission is to educate and encourage communities so they can “clearly see the ability in disability and create new opportunities to keep those with disability engaged and connected,” according to its website.

Valentini taught special education for 12 years in Barrington and also worked at Chapel Street Church in Geneva as the director of special needs ministry. She said she’s “always had a heart for people with disabilities.”

“I’ve always loved the idea of being the light and having a community shed light on the (disability) community that is often isolated,” she said of why she named her organization Rising Lights Project. “I wanted to shed light on (this community), and having communities rise up and be a friend to those who appear to be different than them.”

One way Rising Lights Project fulfills the mission of providing an opportunity for individuals with disabilities is Garden Group, which began in April. The group meets on an Elburn farm every Friday to learn gardening skills while tending to a 1-acre garden, where they grow vegetables, herbs and more. Recently, the garden added four beehives and members learned how to extract and store nearly 200 jars of honey, which they sold.

Garden Group not only provides a social outlet for group members, but helps them learn job skills that can translate into outside employment. The group of 12 ranges in age from 18 to 44 with a variety of disabilities.

Valentini hopes to work with local businesses to encourage them to hire group members, and also is working with Batavia business The Tea Tree to create an herbal tea from herbs grown in the Rising Lights Project garden.

“It’s hard to find employers who are open to hiring adults with disabilities. We work on basic job skills and give them things to work on,” she said. “I’m looking for opportunities that would allow for skills that are repetitive and rhythmic like watering a garden or digging out flowers. There’s something [in gardening] for people at all skill levels. I’m putting out feelers to see if local nurseries would hire somebody if I can train them well.”

Campton Hills resident Michele Musillami said her son Kyle, 27, has “flourished” as a member of the Garden Group.

“He loves and looks forward to the Garden Club weekly. As a parent, watching his excitement and joy from participating in the activities is an amazing thing to witness,” she said. “My son has grown and prospered in the months that he has been a member. He has learned valuable life skills that he applies to his home life. We as a family have grown closer and met so many amazing friends through this organization. Be it a garden party, processing honey or even inclusive play dates. It also gives us a sense of community that is so desperately needed.”

Amy Mason, garden manager for Rising Lights Project, said she and Valentini had “many plans” for the garden, but believes the best thing that’s happened is the special bond and friendships among group members.

“We imagined an abundant harvest from our garden, which thankfully has happened, but the real blessing is an inclusive community working together to build something new. The result here has been a resilient and beautiful garden, but more importantly, a resilient and beautiful community,” Mason said.

With colder weather approaching, Garden Group will be winding down, but Valentini is hoping to continue the group in a greenhouse space over the winter so members are able to continue learning important job skills while maintaining friendships.

“It’s very important for (Garden Group members) to get a job, and the benefit of having someone with different needs on staff is a huge gain for an employer, and great for our communities that we’re accepting of everybody,” Valentini said. “The group members love coming, they love being with friends and the social time. It’s so neat for them to see the growth and change in a garden from week to week. They can see their hard work paying off.”

In addition to Garden Group, Rising Lights Project hosts a playgroup for families with younger children in addition to special activities around holidays.

Angie Bateman of Kaneville brings her daughter Kei’anna, 9, to the playgroup and other activities. She said her family is “grateful” to Valentini for providing meaningful activities for children impacted by disability.

“Raising a child with significant medical and developmental challenges can be very isolating,” Bateman said. “Having connections to others who walk a journey like ours takes away a portion of the isolation and makes us feel included.”

Feeds,Region: AH,Features,Region: Suburbs,City: Arlington Heights

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October 31, 2021 at 01:28PM

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