Crafting a community

ICCSD students and staff form Community Inclusion Club to help teens with disabilities thrive

It’s the last school day before winter break and spirits are high. A piano is playing in the commons and people are dancing and singing to winter tunes. Snow is falling outside and the excitement for winter break is felt everywhere. The smell of gingerbread fills the air. 

This is the Community Inclusion Club (also known as CIC). CIC works to ensure no student with disabilities feels alone or excluded in the Iowa City Community School District. This club is led by Special Education teacher, Steven Merkle. Merkle has been teaching at West High for 24 years and is the advisor for CIC. 

Community Inclusion Club is many things. It is a community for students with disabilities to feel included and accepted. It is a group that celebrates differences and enjoys their time together. But before CIC became what it is today, it was Best Buddies.

The Best Buddies program was introduced to West high with the help of students around the school. Best Buddies is an organization with chapters worldwide that works to give people with disabilities one-to-one friendship, job opportunities, and other ways to gain independence. 

West High was partnered with Best Buddies until 2021 when they disbanded. “We are still in rebuild mode since the pandemic and disbanding from Best Buddies” explains Merkle. It took $340 dollars in dues a year to have a Best Buddy chapter at West High. In order to continue the inclusion without the price, West High teamed up with City High School and created Community Inclusion Club. 

With the creation of the club, there have been challenges. “We used to build our office core from seniors and juniors. But when we got back from COVID, I only had a few sophomores and freshmen to build with” says Merkle. 

One of these sophomores was Caroline Seery ’24. Seery was one of the leaders in helping build CIC into what it is today. “The main activity we do at CIC is throw parties”, explains Seery, “making sure everyone is having a good time and is included in a community of friends is so important and we try to achieve that by throwing themed parties”. Some past parties have included a trip to Wilson’s apple orchard, gingerbread house making, and many other seasonal parties.

I love having a club that’s low-stakes and focuses on your benefit.

— Caroline Seery '24

Another big event for CIC is the teacher-student basketball game. This game happened on September 22nd after school and was a big hit among students and teachers. The idea was started by some of West’s very own girls’ basketball players. The basketball game became such a hit that it continues to be one of the highlights of each CIC year. 

Camp Courageous is also something CIC looks forward to every year. Camp Courageous is located in Monticello, IA. Camp Courageous was founded in 1972 due to a land donation especially for making a camp for individuals with special needs. Since then, they have accumulated 400 acres of land and have served over 10,000 individuals with disabilities. 

These outings and parties help students with intellectual disabilities thrive. “You really see their personalities develop”, said Merkle. Students are able to join activities and meet new people in high school. From theater to sports, there are opportunities all over West to help students grow. 

But as adult life nears many people with disabilities struggle to adapt without the guidance they once had. CIC works to assist them in their adult life by starting adult programs as well. According to the U.S Department of Labor, 68.6 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed. Community Inclusion Club teams up with other local organizations to help introduce adults with disabilities to the workforce.

As you walk through the bustling hallways of West High, a big difference can be seen by those in CIC. “Every day I see from my friends how this club benefits them and their social exposure to people they might not usually meet”, explains Seery. CIC strives to make Iowa City a more inclusive and welcoming place for people with disabilities throughout their life. “My goal is to make one-to-one relationships for students with intellectual disabilities”, says Merkle. And as he has done so, he and several classes have truly crafted a welcoming and inclusive community.