Posted on May 31, 2023
It all started back in 2019 when Jennifer Hisey, Community Supports Day Program Manager at Penn-Mar Central, was looking to “mix things up” for her day program activities.
Her initial thought was to organize an informal Fashion Show with the people Penn-Mar supports modeling clothing and accessories picked up at Goodwill.
But then along came COVID, just one week before show time.
Fast-forward two years later and the Fashion Show idea was resurrected again. Tina Chan Sweenie, Penn-Mar‘s Associate Director of Development, Volunteer and Donor Relations, mentioned to Jennifer in passing that her daughter Leila had a Fashion Show event at her school.
The Jemicy School in Owings Mill, MD, where Leila attends, is an independent school for grades 1-12 that has been educating students with dyslexia or related language-based learning differences for 50 years. It was the beginning of an amazing collaboration that eventually found its way to the Runway during a May 19 livestreamed event staged at Penn-Mar’s Central location in Freeland, MD.
Penn-Mar team members are always searching for ways to create person-centered events that will give the people they support exposure, education, and experience. Jennifer saw the Fashion Show as “the perfect opportunity to give our people a taste of the fashion world, to interact with people outside of the Penn-Mar community and give them a chance to shine where all eyes would be on them for a positive reason.”
So earlier this year, 18 fashion design students from Jemicy made their way to Penn-Mar to meet their 26 future models and complete questionnaires about their fashion preferences and the challenges they were experiencing with traditional clothing. Measurements were taken and storyboards created to lock in on the custom fashions the students would be creating.
In the meantime, Jemicy’s students in a video class were filming everything behind-the-scenes.
“It was a gem of a project,” said Leslie Furlong, who teaches videography and photography there. “Our students were completely invested in the work. It went way beyond doing homework for themselves. They were doing something for someone else. They felt connected and they were determined to get it right!”
Pauline Savage, US Visual Arts Department Chair and College Counselor for the Arts at the Jemicy School, described how her students were focused on the one-way experience of making something for someone. But in the end, it was “a two-way exchange of positivity and camaraderie.”
All of the Jemicy students were new to fashion design and were motivated by the acceptance and encouragement the clients at Penn-Mar gave them.
“The Penn-Mar folks were so tolerant,” remembers Pauline. “They made the students feel good about the process and recognized that they were taking the risk of sharing their designs publicly. When you are a teenager, if you put extra effort into writing a good paper that’s a private victory,” she explained. “But this was a beautiful public victory that affirmed their hard work.”
For Tina the experience became a real-time education piece on inclusivity “With all the smiles and hugs following the show, it was apparent that the people who we support felt seen and heard,” she said. “You really saw their personalities come through that day. They showed confidence, excitement, love of self and the whole experience.”
On the big day, nearly 40 people attended the Fashion Show in person including leadership from Penn-Mar and Jemicy. Family and friends were able to view the livestream on Facebook.
Jennifer summed up the effort by saying, “We gave the people we support an experience they won’t soon forget and it hopefully will open the door for more meaningful collaborations with businesses and schools in the future.”