Lesley Blake knows the sting of being singled out and called names for having a disability.

Blake suffers from cerebral palsy.

She’s been a client at Wendell Foster since she was 3 months old. Now, she’s a part-time receptionist there.

More important, she’s part of a Wendell Foster team taking a new program titled Respect Starts Now to schools in Henderson, Ohio, Webster, Union, Daviess, Hancock, McLean and Muhlenberg counties. Presentations begin March 1, but schools are urged to schedule a date now.

Respect Starts Now replaces Wendell Foster’s former End the R-Word campaign, which sought to end the use of the word retarded.

The Respect Starts Now campaign, however, goes further.

“The purpose of the campaign is to educate students on being respectful to all, including people with disabilities,” said John Gleason, Wendell Foster community outreach specialist.

In 2014, more than 4,200 students from seven school districts participated in Wendell Foster’s R-word campaign. Gleason hopes the new program matches that success.

He and Blake will make presentations together at area schools. She will share her personal story.

“I like the way (the new campaign is) worded,” Blake said. The R-word in the new campaign is respect, and she’s happy to talk about that.

The former presentation called attention to a negative and hurtful word, said Jeff Hagan, Wendell Foster spokesman. “We were bringing up the curiosity: What is the R-word?”

The Respect Starts Now program was designed to challenge the way people think about individuals with disabilities and differences. The message touches on bullying and seeks to create greater understanding and compassion. And it promotes an end to hurtful and insulting words.

“This campaign will benefit its listeners and remind them that respect is essential,” LeVon Cozart, a guidance counselor at Eastview Elementary, said in a press release. “This message is timed perfectly with the events taking place in our world.”

To keep students thinking about the Respect Starts Now message long after the presentation is finished, Wendell Foster came up with a series of contests for children to enter. Students can participate in contests for bulletin board design, essays and posters.

Gleason already has scheduled 14 presentations at six schools. Schools interested in sharing the Respect Starts Now message should contact him at 270-852-1486.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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