At the end of Season Two of American Idol, singer Clay Aiken was one of the last two left standing on the stage. Although Clay’s dream to be an Idol was given to Ruben Studdard, his other dream grew stronger: inclusion for special needs children.

What a lot of people may not know was that Clay attended UNC-CH earning a degree in Special Education before he auditioned for American Idol. It was during this time Clay met Diane Bubel and her young son, Mike, and his life was changed forever.

“When Clay met the Bubel family,” said Kristy Barnes, Director of Marketing and Operations of the Aiken/Bubel Foundation.  “He worked one on one with Mike Bubel, Diane Bubel’s son.  He watched Mike after school and took him out into the community. What Clay wished for Mike was to have the opportunity to go to summer camp—like the camps Clay worked at in the past.”

You see Mike has Autism. And although not a life-threatening disorder, it affects how Mike is able to function in social situations. Children with Autism aren’t able to enjoy activities and close social contact in the same way as their peers. But just because they enjoy such activities differently, doesn’t mean they should be excluded from them.

“Clay and Diane often talked about how nice it would be for Mike to participate in the same activities Diane’s daughter Emma or the other children Clay worked with at summer camp.” Barnes said. “Diane encouraged Clay to try out for American Idol and he used this opportunity to educate others about inclusion.”

The bond between Clay and Diane grew stronger as they shared a vision of a world where children—all children—could enjoy everything that life has to offer. As stated on the Aiken/Bubel website, Clay and Diane both witnessed how “children with disabilities [were] repeatedly turned away from activities opened to typical children.” They were determined to end this.

Inclusion is a term used to describe how all children—despite their mental, physical, emotional or financial backgrounds—should be able to enjoy and have access to the same opportunities. Clay and Diane understood that not all children have the same needs but do want the same thing: the chance just to enjoy their childhood.
Shortly after his run on American Idol, Clay—with Diane’s assistance—started the Aiken/Bubel Foundation. I asked Barnes about their programs and services: “We have a grant program.  You can find our funding priorities at the following link: www.bubelaiken.org/default.aspx?tabid=63. We also have a program called “Let’s ALL Play,” (www.bubelaiken.org/default.aspx?tabid=106). We’re in the process of developing a K-12 Inclusive Service Learning Curriculum (www.bubelaiken.org/default.aspx?tabid=156). We understand the financial challenges of inclusion and we want to support others in serving all children because inclusion is the right thing to do.”

The Grant program is extremely important as it helps to provide funding to families who either don’t qualify for
funding in other ways or don’t know where else to turn.

Another important aspect of the Aiken/Bubel website is the opportunity for parents to reach out to one another by sharing advice as well as their stories (see Sidebar for details). I asked Kristy if there were any stories that stood out for her and she said:

“There is another child that I think about often.  We had a child who’d been kicked out of every summer camp in his area and he was brought to our camp as the last resort for his family.  He attended our camp for the rest of the summer and was just a joy.  The parents were shocked that they didn’t get a call the first day to pick him up or ever the rest of the summer.

By serving the children individually—understanding them—and expecting them to be successful, helps them to have a great summer.  This child transitioned from camp to school better than ever before.  He had a great school year and when he came back the next summer his needs from the staff were minimal.  So not only did he get to enjoy summer camp as a child, this program helped give him the confidence he needed to be successful for his future.”

Barnes also said how touching it was to connect with parents who “honestly didn’t believe we’d accept their child in camp because they had never been accepted before, in which case this program also made a difference in the lives of parents. I’ve heard of children carrying around their scrapbooks from the summer to show everyone their friends.  There are long-term results from the happiness that children and families experience in the summer.”

Although I haven’t had any connections on a personal level with the Foundation, I am touched in a personal way by what they do. My oldest daughter, Jaimie, was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) when she was two-and-a half. Like Autism, SPD isn’t a life-threatening disorder but Jaimie struggles every day to function in an environment causing her pain and discomfort. This prevents her from functioning on a normal social level with her peers.

Early last year, I wrote a story for the newest Chicken Soup For The Soul book series entitled Chicken Soup For The Soul: Children With Special Needs. During the publication process of the book, I found out that a portion of proceeds from book sales would be donated to the Aiken/Bubel Foundation. I knew I had to help out in any way I could.

Barnes also submitted to the book and said, “I’ve always enjoyed the book Chicken Soup for the Soul and I learned about the Special Needs edition.  When I found out about the book, I submitted the dance story (this story can be found on the site.)  I later worked with Chicken Soup on some other items and they decided to give a portion of the proceeds to the foundation.”

How awesome is that? On a closing note, I asked Barnes how people can contribute to the Foundation’s wonderful cause. Here’s what she said:

“We always have suggestions on ways to volunteer.  Consider one of the suggestions or come up with your own and make a difference in our community.  It can be as easy as contacting you local children’s organizations and making them aware of our grant program or wrapping presents during ‘Wrapping For Inclusion.’  Contact us if you need ideas to make a difference in your community.”

Thank God for people like Diane Bubel and celebrities like Clay Aiken who use their fame to help children in need.  From the bottom of my heart, I thank them for helping children—just like my Jaimie—and truly see Clay as more than an idol…he’s a hero.

SIDEBAR:

The Aiken/Bubel site provides many ways people can contribute and reach out to children and families with special needs. The following are several areas in which people can share in the cause and help bring awareness:

If you’d like to share your personal story, either as a special needs person or of your special needs child, Barnes says you can share your story here:www.bubelaiken.org/StoriesExperiences/VoicesofExperience/tabid/138/Default.aspx.

She says, “We are looking for inspirational stories here.  My favorite one is the story from Mikayla’s mom (see the link on the site and be sure to have tissue handy!) She is truly a wonderful mother.”

They also have a strong volunteer program and a store from which they use money to fund their programs: “We don’t have people contribute to the store.  However, we do have over 1,200 volunteers across the country who participate in grassroots fundraising.  Occasionally, there is an item that does so well that we do put it in the store.  For example, the bracelets are made by a volunteer and we sell them because of the huge demand.”

Finally, Barnes advises that, “People can contribute by sharing our mission and communicating that inclusion is the right thing to do.  They can even join our volunteer program Beta Alpha by clicking on the following link:www.bubelaiken.org/GettingInvolved/VoicesofBetaAlpha/tabid/111/Default.aspx.”

The Foundation will also be hosting its first Annual Golf Tournament this year. Please check their site atwww.bubelaiken.org for details.