During their freshman year at Rock Bridge High School two years ago, childhood friends Kinley Schade and Sriya Pokala started a club called Cougars United.

Members of the club visit local elementary schools and promote friendship among special education students and their classmates through crafts and games. Although the club is still active, they couldn’t make the usual visits during the pandemic.

With extra free time during quarantine, Kinley and Sriya decided to take the idea of supporting students with disabilities beyond the classroom.

“I texted Kinley one night,” Sriya, 15, said. “’Hey, we should start a website.’”

The rising high school juniors have now spread their idea to 10 states and raised over $5,000 for adaptive sports programs nationwide.

Their new nonprofit, called Difference One Step at a Time, raises money to modify sports so those with disabilities can participate.

“You shouldn’t be limited by the activities that are available to you,” Kinley, 16, said on the importance of accessible programs.

They expanded their organization when friends and family started showing interest. Some people even messaged them over Instagram to become involved. Now they have a staff of 16 volunteers.

Initially, they raised money for the Disabled Athlete Sports Association in St. Louis and DanceAbility in Columbia where the School of Missouri Contemporary Ballet “offers dance classes for students with different abilities,” according to their website. Both Kinley and Sriya were volunteers in the summer of 2020.

“You’re there to support the student,” said Jennifer Highbarger, founder and coordinator of DanceAbility. “Our kids have very different diagnoses … and all of them have different needs.”

Highbarger said donations from Difference One Step at a Time helped when the school couldn’t hold its own fundraisers during the pandemic. The money helped cut costs for students and provide costumes.

“It’s really fun to see in younger adults something so positive,” Highbarger said of the effort.

In February, Difference One Step at a Time filed for nonprofit status, which was granted the same month.

“It’s been a learning process we didn’t know very much about before,” Kinley said.

They said the most difficult aspects of managing the organization are the legal matters and communicating with students nationwide who serve as state leaders. Each state leader plans individual fundraisers with assistance from headquarters. Donations go to local programs within each state.

Fundraisers vary across the country from bake sales, flower sales and performances. When the pandemic dashed the hope of holding a 5K fundraiser, Kinley and Sriya organized a virtual race. Participants were able to choose the distance they ran as well as the amount they donated. Recently Sriya staged an Indian dance performance.

Aditya Pokala, a New Jersey leader and Sriya’s cousin, raised $280 with a piano recital and cupcake sale in May, held outside to meet social distancing concerns.

“It can be a challenge,” he said about organizing fundraisers. “But if you keep your head in the game, you can easily overcome it.”

The staff is spending the summer brainstorming future events. Currently, an anonymous donor is matching donations up to $10,000 until the end of 2021.

  • Summer 2021 general assignment reporter studying journalism and political science. Can be reached at jamhcv@umsystem.edu or in the newsroom at (573) 882-5700. You can also find me on Twitter @joyamazur.

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