Rachel Kassenbrock

@rachel-kassenbrock | contributor
Rachel Kassenbrock is an Associate Editor at The Mighty. She recently graduated from the College of Wooster with a degree in English, and has previously written for the Ms. magazine blog and LifeinLA.com. She now lives in Los Angeles where she enjoys live music, being outside and all things coffee-related. You can follow her at @rkassenbrock or email her at rachel@themighty.com.

This Couple's 'All-Autism Wedding' Proves Love and Relationships Are for Everyone

Photo courtesy of Olive PR Solutions During the weekend of September 26 and 27, hundreds of people will gather in San Diego for the second annual Love & Autism: A Conference With Heart conference. The event centers on love and relationships as they pertain to people of all ages on the autism spectrum. “My goal is to start the social movement to break down the misconceptions that people on the spectrum do not want and need relationships,” Dr. Jenny Palmiotto, a marriage and family therapist and the founder of Love & Autism, said in a press release for the event. “ Autism is always there and love is always there; it’s nothing that an individual needs to overcome.” But this year’s conference is special for another reason. On September 26, Anita Lesko and Abraham Nielsen, two adults on the autism spectrum, are getting married. And they’ve chosen the Love & Autism conference as their wedding venue. Abraham Nielson and Anita Lesko. Photo courtesy of Olive PR Solutions The event, dubbed the “First All-Autism Wedding” by its organizers, will feature notable figures in the autism world, including bestselling author Dr. Temple Grandin and global autism ambassador Dr. Stephen Shore, according to the event’s CrowdRise page. Additionally, Lesko and Nielsen’s entire wedding party is comprised of adults who identify on the autism spectrum. Lesko, 56, says she and Nielsen, whom she met at her Asperger’s support group in 2013, decided to marry at the conference because they wanted to give people with autism who aren’t often invited to anything the chance to attend or participate in a wedding. But they hope the event goes deeper than that. “The big picture is to reach as many people as possible to start changing the world’s views of autistic people,” Lesko told The Mighty. “Abraham and I want to give hope to the millions of people with autism and their families that love, relationships and marriage are possible for those of us on the spectrum.” Photo courtesy of Olive PR Solutions Dr. Palmiotto, who’s planning Lesko and Nielsen’s wedding in addition to organizing this year’s conference, says the couple is already bringing people together. Over the past few months, many people on the autism spectrum have contacted her asking how they can participate in the big day. “The message is so positive and this community wants to stand by our message,” Palmiotto told The Mighty. “I’m hoping [this wedding] will do what most weddings do [and] provide a moment in time to celebrate what life is really about: love,” she added. “This wedding and the conference as a whole is not about becoming more ‘normal,’ whatever that word means — it’s about learning to love yourself and open yourself up to the beauty that loving others may bring.” Lesko agrees, adding that for her, it all comes down to acceptance. “Every human being wants to feel accepted and loved. That’s just basic human needs,” Lesko told The Mighty. “We want to be included in our classrooms, our communities, our neighborhoods and simply everyday life. We are capable of giving and getting love. Abraham and I want to help our autism community, and we want to help the rest of the world to understand and accept us.” Photo courtesy of Olive PR Solutions To learn more about the Love & Autism conference, head here. To learn more about Anita and Abraham’s wedding and help fundraise the event, head here. Fundraising Websites – Crowdrise

The Crayon Initiative Redistributes Restaurants' Leftover Crayons

In 2011, Bryan Ware was enjoying his birthday dinner at a restaurant with his wife and two sons. He was watching his kids draw on the paper tablecloth with crayons their server had given them. A thought struck him. “I wondered, ‘What happens to these crayons after we leave if we don’t take them with us?’” Ware, who lives in the San Francisco area, told The Mighty. He later questioned a restaurant employee and was dismayed to learn that every crayon put out on the table had to be thrown away after the table’s customers left — whether it’d been used down to a nub or left completely untouched. Convinced the crayons’ lives didn’t have to end so early, Ware started taking restaurant crayons with him. He made it his mission to come up with a way to get the unwanted crayons into as many children’s hands as possible. Two years later in 2013, Ware founded The Crayon Initiative, a nonprofit organization that repurposes old unusable crayon wax into new crayons and distributes them to children’s hospitals across California. Photo from The Crayon Initiative Facebook page First, Ware collects old crayons from restaurants, schools and acquaintances. He separates them by color, melts down the wax and molds the melted wax into new crayons. Photo of the melted crayon wax via The Crayon Initiative Facebook page Next, Ware puts the melted wax into a one-of-a-kind crayon mold. The mold, which is large and triangular rather than small and circular, was specifically designed with help from an occupational therapist to be easier to grip for small children and kids with special needs. Photo of the crayon mold via The Crayon Initiative Facebook page The company then puts the new crayons in boxes and delivers them to children of all ages who are in the hospital for any reason. Photo from The Crayon Initiative Facebook page So far, The Crayon Initiative has donated more than 2,000 boxes of crayons to children’s hospitals. In September 2015, Ware made his first out-of-state delivery to a hospital in New York City. He hopes The Crayon Initiative can continue to expand and bring crayons to kids in hospitals all over the country. Ware also hopes these crayons can help children in hospitals express themselves artistically, continue normal childhood development and communicate through drawing what they may not be able to say verbally. But more than anything, he hopes he can play some part in making their hospital stays a little easier. “From my perspective, the biggest goal is to give them an escape,” Ware told The Mighty. “I can’t even fathom what these kids are going through. If these crayons give them an escape from that hospital room for ten minutes, we did our job.” Photo courtesy of Bryan Ware Photo courtesy of Bryan Ware Photo courtesy of Bryan Ware To learn more about The Crayon Initiative, visit the organization’s website and Facebook page.

Hanford Police Replace Play Set Stolen From Kids With Disabilities

On August 10, employees at United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), an organization that supports children and adults with disabilities, arrived at the center in Hanford, California, to find the organization’s play set had been stolen, ABC News reported. Children who attend the UCP center relied heavily on the outdoor play equipment for occupational and physical therapy as well as for building social skills, Jennifer Thornberg, the organization’s family coordinator, told the outlet. However, the discouraging news quickly turned positive thanks to the Hanford community. Once local police officers heard about the burglary, they stepped in to help. The Hanford police department began taking donations to purchase new play equipment for the center. Together, the community raised enough money to purchase new play sets, UCP of Central California wrote on its Facebook page. The Hanford police department did more than just fundraise for the new playground. On August 28, the officers arrived at UCP and assembled the equipment themselves. Photo from the UCP of Central California Facebook page “You see a lot of bad things on a daily basis,” Hanford police officer Mark Carrillo told ABC News in the video below. “You can’t fix them all, but this one needed to be fixed.” Learn more about the officers’ heartwarming show of support in the video below.   Feature photo via the UCP of Central California Facebook page.

Adam Sandler Supports Boy With Autism by Wearing T-Shirt He Designed

Santino Stagliano loves drawing dragons. The 10-year-old with autism even started his own nonprofit company, “Santino’s Dragon Drawings,” to sell his designs on T-shirts, hats and other products online. Half the money he earns through sales goes to the Center for Autism in the Staglianos’ hometown of Philadelphia. Since Santino first began selling his designs in April 2015, he’s sold hundreds of T-shirts and has even been featured on the news. But Lisa Stagliano, Santino’s mom, said her son never really seemed impressed with his success, she told Philly.com. “Finally I said, ‘What would excite you?’” Stagliano told the outlet. “‘If Adam Sandler wore my shirt,’ he replied.” Santino’s dreams soon came true in a big way. A photograph of the “Happy Gilmore” star wearing one of Santino’s dragon T-shirts recently surfaced on the Internet: Photo from Santino’s Dragon Drawings Inc. Facebook page Stagliano says she thinks her friends got in touch with the actor’s representatives, but she isn’t sure how they did it, according to Philly.com. Santino was ecstatic when he saw the photo. On August 20, Stagliano posted a photo on the T-shirt company’s Facebook page of Sandler wearing one of Santino’s dragon T-shirts next to a picture of Santino reacting to the photo of Sandler: Photo from Santino’s Dragon Drawings Inc. Facebook page “We cannot thank you enough, Adam Sandler,” the Facebook post accompanying the photo reads. “The joy you brought Santino and the autism awareness you’re helping spread is amazing. Dreams really do come true.” To learn more about Santino’s Dragon Drawings or to purchase an awesome dragon T-shirt, visit the company’s Facebook page and website. Related: How a Boy With Autism Launched His Own Nonprofit With the Help of Dragons

Debbie Reynolds to Receive Honorary Oscar for Work in Mental Health

Debbie Reynolds will receive an Honorary Award at this year’s Governors Awards for her work in mental health, according to a Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences press release. The Governors Awards is an annual event honoring people in the entertainment industry who are selected by the Academy’s board of governors. The Honorary Award, an Oscar statuette, is given to individuals in the entertainment industry for “extraordinary life achievement, exceptional contributions to the motion picture arts and sciences or outstanding service to the Academy,” according to the Academy’s website. Reynolds, an iconic Hollywood actress and entertainer, was one of the founding members of The Thalians, a group formed by people in the entertainment industry in 1955 to raise awareness of reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, according to the organization’s website. The “Singin’ in the Rain” star served as the group’s president almost continuously from 1957 through 2011 and served as chair of the board for additional terms, according to the Academy. Due in large part to Reynolds’s work, the Thalians were able to donate millions of dollars to the Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai and to Operation Mend, an organization at UCLA that works with veterans to recover from psychological injuries after returning from war. Reynolds, now 83, will receive her award at the Academy’s 7th Annual Governors Awards on November 14, 2015. The other 2015 honorees are filmmaker and director Spike Lee for his work with young filmmakers and actress Gena Rowlands for her lifelong dedication to independent film, the Academy reported. Read the Academy’s full press release here.

Watch Kelly Clarkson's Response to a Request From a Fan With Down Syndrome

Kelly Clarkson keeps giving the world more reasons to love her. After her concert on August 25 in Phoenix, Arizona, Clarkson had a meet-and-greet with Angelica Elias, a 19-year-old fan with Down syndrome, E! Online reported. After Elias said hello and gave the singer a hug, she asked Clarkson if the two could sing “Silent Night” together, Elias’s favorite song. Clarkson happily obliged. On August 26, Carolina Elias Joos, Elias’s sister who attended the concert with her, posted a video of the touching duet on Facebook: Angelica asked Kelly Clarkson if they could sing ‘Silent Night’ together. If you know Angelica, you know it’s her favorite song. Watch their duet here… #KellyClarksonPosted by Carolina Elias Joos on Wednesday, August 26, 2015   “I’m totally going to cry,” Clarkson says mid-song in the video above. Joos said Elias was ecstatic after the encounter. “After the duet, Angelica couldn’t believe it happened,” Joos told The Mighty. “She’d told me before that she wanted to ask Kelly to sing ‘Silent Night,’ and I told her she probably wouldn’t do it because it’s August. They both sure proved me wrong!” Photo courtesy of Carolina Elias Joos

How This Father-Son Duo's Cross-Country Run Is Helping Kids With Disabilities

A father and his son with cerebral palsy who pledged to run across the country to support kids with disabilities are rapidly approaching their big finish. Shaun and Shamus Evan’s journey really began in November 2013, when the two won a 45-mile ultramarathon together, the Evans family, who live in Galway, New York, wrote on their Facebook page. This would be an impressive feat for anyone, but this accomplishment was extra special — Evans’ son Shamus, then 7, has limited mobility due to cerebral palsy. Evans pushed him in a wheelchair, dubbed the “running chariot,” for the duration of the race. Quickly after the race, Shamus began asking his father when they could complete a cross-country run, and nearly two years later, his dream is becoming a reality. On July 4, 2015, the Evans family embarked on a 65-day, 3,200-mile run across the United States, The Mighty reported in July. As of Tuesday, August 25, Evans and Shamus, now 9, had covered about 2,970 miles with Evans pushing Shamus in his wheelchair nearly the entire time, Runner’s World reported. They’d made it all the way from Seattle to Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, averaging more than 50 miles a day for 53 days straight, according to the outlet. Evans and Shamus on the road. Photo via the Ainsley’s Angels Power 2 Push Facebook page. As if completing an ultramarathon a day for approximately two months wasn’t enough, the Evans family turned their journey into an incredible mission. As of August 27, Evans and Shamus have raised just over $100,000 to support Ainsley’s Angels of America, a group that works to include children with special needs in endurance events. They’re also donating racing wheelchairs like Shamus’s running chariot to children with disabilities around the country. On August 25, Evans donated the 20th wheelchair of the trip to 8-year-old Dominic Sauter in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania (video below). Dominic hadn’t been on a hike in three years because he’d grown too heavy for his dad to carry him, Runner’s world reported. Early next week on September 1, the father-son duo will cross into New York City, where their incredible trip will come to an end. But the difference they’ve made for families around the country — and their lifetime of advocacy — will continue on. “It’s all about promoting inclusion, and giving that gift of mobility,” Evans says in the video below. Take a look at some photos from throughout their journey below: Shamus leads the way on foot as the team crosses the halfway point in their journey. Photo via the power2push Instagram page. Evans (back) and Shamus (center) present two running chariots to children in Ohio. Photo via the power2push Instagram page. The Evans family on August 26, day 54 of their cross-country run. Photo via the Ainsley’s Angels Power to Push Facebook page. Evans greets a supporter on the road. Photo via the Ainsley’s Angels Power 2 Push Facebook page. Photo via the Ainsley’s Angels Power 2 Push Facebook page. Photo via the Ainsley’s Angels Power 2 Push Facebook page. Learn more about the Evans’ cross-country run in the video below, and watch Evans present the 20th wheelchair of the trip Dominic Sauter at 1:28. To keep up with Shamus and Shaun Evans as they finish their journey, check out their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. To support their team and Ainsley’s Angels of America fundraiser, head here.

Project Empowers People With Spinal Cord Injuries Through Photography

When someone endures a spinal cord injury, his or her life can dramatically change in an instant. A broken spinal cord may result in paralysis and, in some cases, the person affected can lose the ability to stand, walk or function independently. As a result, people who’ve sustained this kind of injury can feel like a lot is out of their control. Now, a photography workshop series aims to turn that feeling on its head. “Imagine Me” is a program that teaches people who live with spinal cord injuries adaptive and modified digital photography skills — free of charge. Workshop participants also learn about the technical aspects of photography like photo editing, shutter speed and ISO, the project’s founder, Sue Murray, told The Mighty in an email. In turn, workshop participants develop the skills to create unique, imaginative self-portraits that reveal the person beneath the injury. Photo from the Imagine Me Facebook page “[The photos] show the strength and individuality of people with spinal cord injuries that is often overlooked,” Murry, a photographer who lives in Sydney, Australia, told The Mighty. In addition to providing an outlet for self-expression, creating these self-portraits can help people who’ve sustained spinal cord injuries come to terms with the ways their lives have changed — something they may not have found a way to do. “When I got [to the workshop], the whole idea of creating a self-portrait was really quite scary. I’d never looked at myself or tried to look into myself like that after the injury,” Brett Henman, one of the first “Imagine Me” workshop participants, says in the video below. “The process was awesome. You didn’t really realize [you’d been] looking into yourself the way you were.” Henman added that his self-portrait, which he calls “Rising,” encapsulates how he’s felt about the entire process of working through his injury. “Rising,” Henman’s self-portrait. Photo via the Imagine Me Facebook page By creating these self-portraits, people like Henman whose lives have drastically changed since their injuries get to decide how they want to represent themselves — and their disabilities — to the rest of the world. “People always see you in a wheelchair and have pity,” Richard Kramer, another workshop participant, says in the short documentary about the project below. “I want to use the symbol of a dragon [to show that] even though I might be in a wheelchair, there’s a mighty powerful beast riding around in my wheelchair.” Take a look at some of the compelling self-portraits below. Photo from the Imagine Me Facebook page Photo from the Imagine Me Facebook page Photo from the Imagine Me Facebook page Photo from the Imagine Me Facebook page Learn more about this project in the short documentary below. Murray is hosting several free “Imagine Me” workshops in New South Wales, Australia, throughout fall 2015. Take a look at the schedule here. For more information about “Imagine Me” and to view more portraits, visit the project’s website and Facebook page.

Woman's Invention Could Make Life Easier for People With Alzheimer's Disease

After her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Sha Yao noticed how challenging everyday tasks became for her. “Every time I saw her suffer, I wished I could have done something to help improve her quality of life,” Yao says in the video below. Yao with her grandmother. Photo via YouTube screen capture. Her grandmother has since passed away, but Yao’s desire to people facing those same challenges remained. While volunteering at a center for people living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Yao noticed that many patients had difficulty eating and using utensils. So Yao, an industrial designer based in San Francisco, created Eatwell tableware, a dining set that makes eating easier for people who live with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other cognitive delays. The brightly colored dining sets looks simple, but each Eatwell utensil was specifically designed to benefit people with cognitive and motor impairments after years of research, according to the Eatwell website. For example, Yao chose red and yellow color schemes because people with dementia tend to consume more food when using brightly colored utensils, according to a 2014 study conducted by Boston University. Cup and silverware handles are large and easy to grip. The bowls feature right-angle sides, which helps prevent spills, and spoons are specifically designed to fit the curvature of the bowl. All utensils have gripping material on the bottom to keep them from slipping or tipping over. Yao hopes Eatwell tableware can make mealtimes easier for people living with cognitive delays and their caregivers. But more importantly, she hopes her idea can help people like her late grandmother live happier, healthier lives. “Raising awareness and addressing the needs of people with impairments will allow them to maintain their dignity, retain as much independence as possible and reduce the burden on their caretakers,” Yao told the design website Fast Company. “That’s what made designing the Eatwell tableware set so rewarding.” Learn more about Yao’s story and Eatwell in the company’s fundraising video below.   Eatwell tableware is now available for preorder, and the first dining sets are expected to arrive in September 2015. To learn more, visit the company’s website. Photos courtesy of Eatwell Tableware. Feature image via YouTube screen capture.

What It's Like Living With Williams Syndrome

Approximately one in every 10,000 people worldwide lives with Williams syndrome, according to the Williams Syndrome Association. The rare genetic condition is characterized by learning difficulties and developmental delays as well as medical complications like cardiovascular disease. But people with the condition also tend to be highly social, kindhearted and have affinities for language and music. The Mighty wanted to learn more about what it’s like to live with Williams syndrome, so we teamed up with the Williams Syndrome Association, an organization that supports families and individuals living with the condition. The group asked its Facebook community to share one thing they want people to know about Williams syndrome. Here are some of the responses: 1. “ Individuals with Williams syndrome can teach us all that despite their struggles, they manage to smile and enjoy life. [That’s] something a lot of people forget. People with Williams syndrome have the most contagious smile and a zest for life that most people lack.” — Sylvia Navarro 2. “[I wish people understood] h ow easily our children can be bullied. Their hearts are made of gold, which sadly makes them easy targets for bullies.” — Erica Guzman 3. “ All children with or without Williams syndrome want and need the same things — love and acceptance.” — Lorraine C. Evans 4. “ You will never meet another person like someone with Williams syndrome. [These people] are… the brightest souls on earth with the biggest hearts.” — Tammy Barry 5. “N ot all individuals with Williams syndrome are the same. They are all unique and have a wide range of abilities. Their personalities and behavior vary.” — Jessica Fountain Peterson 6. “ The sunshine and sincere, genuine love for life and for people that radiate in individuals with Williams syndrome is indescribable.” — Erin Kaplan Rupolo 7. “ The most difficult challenges will be far outmatched by the greatest rewards they bring into your life. Every accomplishment and milestone is met with immeasurable joy that you would never experience with anyone else. They will surprise you with their love, generosity and happiness when you least expect it, and you will be infected by it.” — Richard A Williams Jr. 8. “‘ Different’ can have huge positive attributes.” — Julie Hayden 9. “ My son has such a true deep love for people, sometimes after only knowing them a few minutes. I wish more ‘typically developing’ people were the same. Can you imagine the peace and joy that would fill the world?” — Maggie Garrison 10. “ Williams syndrome is a complex collection of heartbreak, heart-busting joy, extreme physical and cognitive challenges and amazing talent. [People with Williams syndrome are] extraordinary human beings with such profound capacity to love and ability to express happiness that the strangers around them often stop in their tracks and smile.” — Nancy Paslay 11. “[People with Williams syndrome] want to be everyone’s best friend — but really, they just want to be accepted the way others are.” — Heather Gilbert O’Connell 12. “[Many people with Williams syndrome] have great memory skills, crave and excel with a set routine, love any and all get togethers because it nurtures their huge social side. The world is a much better place because of them.” — Marianne Mepham Newton 13. “Don’t think [Williams syndrome] is the end of the world. It’s the beginning of a long adventure.” — Delores Carr   *Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.