A few weeks ago Puzzle Pieces celebrated its eight-year anniversary.

Wow! It’s hard to believe it was eight years ago that I quit my job at 28 years old and started a nonprofit organization, with only passion and purpose guiding me.

My motto then was fake it until you make it (a phrase that has ironically made a comeback with all the curveballs that 2020 has delivered).

In the nearly 3,000 days since creating the mission statement for Puzzle Pieces, I never knew a simple sentence about serving those with intellectual disabilities would catch like wildfire across our city.

This community has grown to understand disabilities and inclusion to be more than just ADA building code compliance or cheering on an athlete as you volunteered at a Special Olympics event. (Disclaimer: both of these are important, but supporting those with disabilities is much more than building access and one annual sporting event.)

Owensboro has come a long way in realizing that there is much more to someone with a disability than what you can observe at first glance.

Our community has learned that a person with Down syndrome can start his own talk show platform, allowing viewers to follow local happenings. And although that gig was a dream come true, the role secured a career as a representative at a prestigious bank, his ultimate aspiration. Our community placed value in what he brought to Owensboro, and no longer just saw Down syndrome.

Our community has supported and celebrated Owensboro’s most popular 5K event, Color Blast, alongside families impacted by disability, making it the biggest race of its size in community history.

The thousands in attendance will never forget the incredible confidence one young woman with autism displayed as she sang “Don’t Laugh At Me,” by Mark Willis. With her annual performance, this young woman propelled a community forward, encouraging acceptance of her and her friends.

Our community boasts some of the best school systems that have established models that make special education a priority.

They have implemented peer mentoring programs that have placed acceptance and diversity at the forefront. These school systems ensure that the next generation sees value in people, looking past a disability.

The resources Owensboro offers for those with disabilities reflect the community’s strong support. Compared to other cities and states, we boast an abundance of service providers.

As one of those service providers, and someone deeply ingrained in the disability community, I fear that this abundance can provide Owensboro with a false sense of security.

An unaware, average citizen would assume that those with disabilities have everything they need because we have numerous services to support them.

I worry that this is where we could fall into a trap with no movement to continue to grow our community’s diversity, understanding and acceptance, and take personal accountability to move us forward.

Celebrating Puzzle Pieces’ monumental eight-year milestone helped me reflect on the growth Owensboro has seen in terms of diversity and acceptance.

But we aren’t done yet, right?

We need to continue to want more for our hometown, for the next generation. Eight years ago, I quit a job I spent years in college preparing for in hopes of giving this community that I love something that I knew it was missing and needed.

Are you harboring a similar passion, but are too scared to take the leap of faith? Modern Owensboro has been built on individuals investing in their own community, declaring their passion and turning it into purpose. We need you to keep moving our city forward.

Not everyone has a deep passion, ready to affect great change across a community — that’s OK. But become an advocate for someone who does.

Strive to be the person who challenges others to think outside the box and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Be intentional and listen, observe, and understand that everyone in this community has a story worth telling.

My story started with my brother having a disability and witnessing countless people devalue his abilities, offering him pity instead of empowering him or providing him opportunities.

I wanted more for him and to change this community for him and his friends. After eight years one thing is certain: my journey, my story, is just the beginning.

I challenge you, what’s your story?

Amanda Owen is the founder and executive director of Puzzle Pieces. Follow Amanda’s Blog: Pieces of Me: Perspectives on Inclusion and Acceptance, www.piecesofme.org.

Amanda Owen is the founder and executive director of Puzzle Pieces. Follow Amanda’s Blog: Pieces of Me: Perspectives on Inclusion and Acceptance, www.piecesofme.org.

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