Don’t Just Include. Embrace!

High FiveInclusion. It’s an overused word in education, employment and community circles – with minimal understanding.

Actually the goal is rather simple.

Take individuals with a disability and place them with their non-disabled peers. By doing so in a respectful way, both groups benefit. Modeling for the former. Deeper understanding for the latter.

Mutual respect. Balance. A win-win.

Natural supports.

Yet few exceptional examples of inclusion exist in society. One can easily find numerous half-hearted efforts. Inclusion gone wrong.

You know, pity the person, throw some crumbs and go about your day. Repeat with another person and another and another. Dependent.

No new skills to achieve a sense of independence – one that’s consistent with ability.

In other words, meaningful inclusion doesn’t just happen. Someone needs to take leadership. Make it a priority. Stay the course every day – because bumps will occur.

That’s why a group called the November Project (NP) was such a welcome find for my family. After my son Andrew received several invitations to “just show up” and join the NP group at 6am for a cross-training workout, I finally took him – thinking the session would be another “one and done.”

Like a number of previous attempts at inclusion.

That’s right. Good intentions from genuine people but not an appropriate fit for my son with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, early trauma and never-ending anxiety – along with his intellectual disability.

The November Project proved me wrong.

I was pleasantly surprised. People “got it.” Two years later the twice-weekly NP relationship is still going strong – with both Andrew and me part of the group. We are still working on persuading my son Michael to become a regular.

Recently, I asked NP members for input. Two women (Morgan and Sarah) and three men (Blake, Dustin and Jaden) responded.

They offer powerful statements from people who aren’t mental health professionals or school teachers. They are people like you and me. People who live in our communities. An untapped resource in my cases.

They offer a higher standard. One that is full of expectations. Read and be inspired by the possibilities for people you know and love.

What does NP’s mission of inclusion mean to you?

Everyone attends NP for free fitness, but the by-product that keeps people coming back is the community. Community is the foundation of NP’s inclusion. (Blake)

NP’s mission of inclusion means that you can just show up as you are and that is always good enough. (Morgan)

One of the greatest things about NP is that you meet people that you would have never connected with. People of different ages and backgrounds. They all convene, embrace and support each other every week – no matter what. (Sarah)

2019 Annual Pic

Everyone treats you the same. All are there for the goal of lifting up each other in the name of creating a better you. (Dustin)

Inclusion to me as defined by NP is “everyone” and when I say everyone that encompasses all ages, ability, backgrounds, etc. There is never an outsider when it comes to NP. I think it’s the inclusion that gives us the strong bonds. All the time you see tribe members connecting and learning from each other. (Jaden)


How does NP include – and then embrace – new members who continue to show up?

Newbies (newcomers) don’t convert to regulars without the support of a culture of welcoming, familiar faces. (Blake)

The leaders are intentional about cheering on newbies and calling them by their names. (Morgan)

I’m sure our co-leaders have been tested many times as it’s hard to remember all of those names – but they, along other tribe members, will find ways to make people feel included. (Sarah)

Andrew Watt and Andrew

People were cheering me throughout the workout. The vibe was just electric. I wanted every part of it. The next week a couple of people said, “Hey, we’re glad you came back.” That made me feel awesome, so I kept coming. (Dustin)

I still wake up thinking super early on Wednesday and Friday mornings, “I just want to roll over and go back to bed!” But then I think about the people who are going to be there, the energy I get from seeing friends and spending time with them. So when a newbie shows up for the first time, I think they quickly forget about being 6am or that they are about to do a sweaty hot mess workout, but it turns into more of a “Wow, you know my name, these people cheer me on, it’s fun and exciting!” (Jaden)

Why do you think NP is Andrew’s favorite community organization among the dozen to which he belongs?

He’s developed confidence and values the advice and words shared with him. I also feel NP is probably the most authentic group he gets to be around – people that remove the title of “Special Olympics Athlete” and see Andrew as one of the tribe. Also, Andrew gets to be himself in an environment that will not judge him for his words or actions, but help him navigate these social experiences. (Blake)

When first meeting Andrew, I noticed he was a little hesitant and shy. But I saw it more in the sense of “how will these people treat me?” Our tribe does not look at Andrew in the sense of a Special Olympic athlete with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. We see him as Andrew Peterson…..that’s it. He’s treated just like everyone else in the tribe. That helps Andrew feel comfortable. (Jaden)

When you find someone who can support and challenge you, it’s pretty spectacular. I think Andrew has found a tribe of those someones. Every Wednesday Andrew starts his day being embraced by people who love and support him. You can see it in his eyes as finds the inner strength to push that extra step. And he ends every workout smiling. I think this combination of challenge and support keeps many of us coming back. (Sarah)

The first few workouts you could see Andrew’s cautious uneasiness. Now as soon as the workout is announced, you see Andrew challenging to be in the front. And it’s not from a winner mentality but it’s more of an “I can do this” mindset. I love seeing Andrew blast past me and challenging me to keep up. He is the best motivational competitor I’ve worked out with. He’s then the first one to turn around after kicking my butt to give high fives. (Jaden)

What have you learned from Andrew?

I’ve learned from Andrew that you can do anything you put your mind to with the right people in your corner. (Morgan)

Andrew has taught me one of the biggest lessons we all need to learn. We cannot let fear get in the way of what we want for our lives. We cannot let others’ expectations control what we see for ourselves. (Sarah)

I have learned that the impossible is possible with a strong support system. I use to be of the mindset that I can do all things by myself, maybe a little super hero complex. Watching Andrew (who is a super hero in his own way) give speeches, he is quick to thank his support team. A humbling gesture as it has transitioned to Andrew paying it forward in being a role model for others. (Jaden)

He treats everyone with respect. When I run with him and feel like I’m slowing him down, he gives you encouragement. Just his spirit of all he’s overcome to be a great role model of perseverance. (Dustin)

I would say we go above the standard definition of inclusion as we don’t just pride ourselves on saying we welcome everyone, we actively engage in meeting others. What starts with a simple hug or handshake quickly turns into conversations about sharing our story and often finding multiple points where our stories intersect, which creates a strong culture of everyone is welcome.  (Jaden)

Nov 2017 memorial stairs

Through Andrew’s Special Olympics, he reminded me of SO’s oath – “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Life is hard, sometimes just showing up is being brave in the attempt… these are the small wins which make life palatable at times. My patience and worldview have changed because of Andrew. (Blake)

WOW! Real words from real people.

No doubt, my son Andrew’s life has been richly blessed because of the November Project. The world clearly needs more organizations, employers, service providers, educators and community members that buy into the NP way of including.  

Let’s spread the word. Let’s expect more.

Let’s not just include.

Let’s embrace. DCP

For more information on the nationwide November Project movement, click here.


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Athlete & Advocate

To watch Andrew’s amazing ESPN 14-minute documentary, click here. Andrew Peterson ESPN “Respect” Documentary


2 thoughts on “Don’t Just Include. Embrace!

  1. WOW Just found this site after watching Andrews story on SC featured on ESPN! Your whole family is so inspiring as an adoptive mom of 3 special needs kids! TY so so much!

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