Kim Dodson: A Hero for the Special Needs Community

Ok, I simply cannot hold back on sharing this story! It’s written for the March issues, but touches my heart deeply, so Valentine’s weekend seems the most appropriate time to share!*

As the Executive Director of The Arc of Indiana, Kim Dodson has learned how to be innovative and take risks, all for the cause of helping those with special needs lead lives of purpose.

Fate is what brought Kim Dodson to her current position, for it was literally an accident while she was a junior at Purdue University that steered her career course. Dodson was involved in a fatal car crash that claimed the life of her fiance. After recovering from her own injuries, she changed her major from investment banking to pre-law. During the course of an internship for a Congressman, Dodson was introduced to lobbying.
Kim DodsonDuring the ’97 – ’98 Indiana legislative terms, Dodson worked for a law firm as a lobbyist representing the Amusement Parks. It was during that time that Dodson met Emily Hunt, a young woman badly injured in an amusement park accident that claimed the life of Hunt’s grandmother and rendered Hunt a quadriplegic. Hunt was lobbying for increased safety inspections at amusement parks. Dodson was representing the other side. After a hearing on this issue, Dodson returned to the law firm and told her boss that they needed a compromise. The managing partner said no. Dodson quit two months later. (the law firm no longer exists)

That summer, the reports of abuse and neglect leaked out about the treatment of patients with special needs at state run institutions. And she had no history of people with disabilities but was called to help in this effort, as it greatly offended her. Dodson called The Arc of Indiana. Then Executive Director John Dickerson, was looking for a lobbyist. Now 17 years later, Dodson is the Executive Director.

Current legislation that The Arc of Indiana is pursuing includes Senate Bill 11, which is also known as the ABLE Act (Achieving a Better Life ) which created a 529-type of account for use by those with special needs. The other is House Bill 1219, which is called the Diploma bill, as it requires all school corporations to offer the general diploma to all students, as many students with special needs are not able to earn the Core 40 and not all schools in Indiana offer the general diploma, leaving many of these students without diplomas.

Another focus of The Arc of Indiana is post secondary education for the special needs community. In 2011, while lobbying for Arc of Indiana, Dodson had a frank discussion with the House Ways and Means Committee Chair. The two discussed medicaid and medicare.

“He asked me if I thought it really works,” recalls Dodson. “‘No, it doesn’t.’ was my answer.”

This precipitated an off-the-record conversation which would impact the innovative approach for Arc of Indiana for years to come.

The Arc of Indiana has been seen as a different type of human services organization, for its more innovated and business minded that others. Dodson was challenged to think about things differently. The legislature consisted of a more conservative group of legislators, and The Arc of Indiana embarked on a campaign to move away from “entitlement” programs and moved to positively change the public view of those with special needs.

“We wanted the families to view support differently,” says Dodson. “One means of doing this is to showcase the talents of those with special needs.”

The Arc of Indiana created the Blueprint For Change, which is their platform. Gathering together twenty of the best minds in the country in the special needs field, The Arc of Indiana listened and learned. “We asked ‘what’s worked?’ ‘What’s failed?’” says Dodson. “How can we be more innovative with those with special needs?”

The entire goal is to lessen dependence on government services for those with special needs and yet the statewide unemployment rate was 82% for Indiana’s special needs workforce. Once we allowed them to dream of the possibilities, Arc initiated the Indiana Response Team, consisting of Indiana families, professionals, and educators. One member of this team was Jeff Huffman, whose son Nash has Down syndrome. Nash was entering high school at the time and Huffman dreamed of options for his son after graduation.

Huffman listened to the national panel of experts closely and later, while driving through his home town of Muncie, noticed the abandoned Roberts hotel. Huffman thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to teach job skills to people with special needs in the atmosphere in which they’d be used?”

Huffman shared his idea with Dodson. “He brought up hospitality as a possibility,” says Dodson, who thoughtfully considered this over next 10 days. At the time, the economy wasn’t strong but hospitality was growing. She researched success stories of the hospitality and food services sector experience for those with special needs.

Dodson called Huffman and asked, “What are you thinking?”

Huffman’s reply was, “If this can be done, The Arc of Indiana can do it.”

The business plan was underway, basing it entirely on research of the successes and failures across the country. The Arc of Indiana looked to create a model that worked.

A few characteristics were known that once acquired, they had a greater chance of success: a strong university presence, a supportive business community, and they needed a Mayor who would embrace the mission. Muncie fit the description perfectly.

Huffman was convinced The Roberts Hotel could be renovated and serve as their training center. During the process, The Roberts property sold. “It was a blessing in disguise,” says Dodson. The City of Muncie was so committed to the idea, it provided land for the project, allowing a new hotel to be built from the ground up.

No other city had the synergy like Muncie to pull this off. Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler had been a champion of Arc of Indiana in the statehouse for their issues, was now serving as Muncie’s Mayor. Familiar with the needs of the special needs community, he helped make the Erskine Green Training Institute a reality.

The Arc of Indiana now had everything they were looking for. Architect Wayne Schmidt was selected nearly the moment Dodson met him. “We knew we were doing something very special,” says Dodson. “We wanted shared passion for the project, not just experts in their field. Our architect had never built a hotel but had history with post-secondary education and Wayne is one of the biggest hearted people I’ve ever met.” Wayne Schmidt was selected nearly the moment Dodson met him.

For the hotel restaurant, Dodson knew the downside of a basic hotel restaurant. They needed name recognition and a destination for patrons. Scott Wise of Scotty’s THR3E Wise Men was their target. This would prove to be the easiest influential meeting of Dodson’s career.

Less than two minutes into her pitch, Wise interrupted with, “I’m in.”

Dodson said, “But I haven’t shared everything that is required by your restaurant.”

“I said, ‘I’m in!’ 100%, we will do this,” said Wise. End of meeting. Wise was hand-picked, so was the construction team and the Marriott hotel chain was the best option of those on the table since Marriott has a strong history of hiring people with special needs.

To give the project wings, the State of Indiana supplied a grant of $5million dollars to build the hotel and training center. This unprecedented endowment from the state happened in 2013, and all of the credit goes to the Republicans in the House.

Additional donors include Ball Memorial Hospital, who put up $3million. With the carryover in hospitality training into specific health care skills, partnering with Ball Memorial Hospital is a foregone conclusion. Ball Bros Foundation, Muncie Community Foundation, and Benchmark, (formerly known AWS), all have been gracious supporters.

The name, Erskine Green, comes from Carl Erskine, a pioneer championing the rights of those with special needs to barriers and perceived limitations. Erskine’s son, Jimmy, works at the Applebee’s in Anderson where he has a great sense of pride with his work and his ability to earn a paycheck. Steve Green was so inspired by Erskine’s efforts of advocacy that when Green’s daughter Jessica was born with Down syndrome, Green helped in any way he could to ensure all of his children have the same opportunities.

“I stand on the shoulders of those that have come before me,” says Huffman. “Erskine and Green have touched so many lives, many of whom they will never have the pleasure to meet.”

The first class of the Erskine Green Training Center has exceeded expectations. The goal is to educate eighty students per year. “Two years ago that seemed ambitious,” shares Dodson. “Now with increasing demand, it may not be enough.”

“Our family is truly blessed to be recipients of 60 years worth of love, grit, perseverance, and passion from parents, siblings, advocates, and legislators who have tirelessly worked on behalf of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” says Kerry Fletcher, President of the Board of Directors for The Arc of Indiana. “Our mission is to change the culture that surrounds those with intellectual and developmental disabilities in school, the workplace, the community.”

The Arc of Indiana is fielding calls from across the country to help institute similar programs replicating theirs. By conservative projections, the hotel will be debt free by the end of 2019. By January of 2017, The Arc of Indiana will have their next biz plan for additional training opportunities for those with special needs prepared, sustained by the profits from the hotel. Additional job skills means getting more people to work.

Through the Training Institute, the legacy of Erskine and Green will continue,” says Dodson.

March is National Special Needs Awareness Month. For more information on the Erskine Green Training Institute and The Arc of Indiana, please visit or


*as seen in the March issues for Towne Post 

Sports Writing

Peyton ManningIn the book Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, Richard Cohen shares the story of the greatest season in Bears history. In my opinion, this is one of the best books ever written honoring an NFL team. The description Cohen gives of the run to the Super Bowl for the Bears’, with back to back shut outs with the NY Giants “swims with the fishes” and LA Rams, “dead to me” painted a picture of Godfather-esque football.

Cohen said he wanted his book to be “about the Bears, but also about the ecstasy of winning and what it means to be a fan. … I would delve into the Bears as another journalist might delve into the Amazon. I would die in the jungle, or return with the answers.”

Recently, Zach Keefer of the Indianapolis Star wrote an article on Peyton Manning. It’s in the same league with Cohen. He should turn it into a book.

Keefer not only captures the sentiment of a city that lost a prodigal son, but the sense of Manning’s tenacity of purpose that drives him.

“If you draft me, I promise you we’ll win a championship. If you don’t, I promise to come back and kick your ass.” Peyton said this to Colts owner Jim Irsay. A promise is a promise.

But it’s Keefer’s reference to the future Hall of Famer “He was winning three straight…reviving a career that sat on its deathbed in late November, storming into his fourth Super Bowl two months shy of his 40th birthday. How many 39-year olds could have pulled off this miracle?”

Peyton will need a miracle, perhaps just one more, to wrap up his career.

Regardless of outcome, Manning accomplished something that Denver should be proud of – and regret the booing they serenaded him with two months ago.

Looking around this city the last couple of weeks, I’d almost forgotten that the Colts are blue and white.

“A Colts town is a Broncos town for a few days. A Peyton Manning town, forever.” -Keefer.

Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.

Creating Our Own Mythology

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Kara Kavensky with Artist Walter Knabe

The feeling of coming home is the best way that I can possibly describe how I feel when I gaze upon work by Walter Knabe. As I walk into his studio, I inherently take a deep breath, for his art settles me. I’m grounded by the visual elements of interest he utilizes in his work. I find his use of color nurturing to a portion of my soul that seems insatiable for his aesthetic.

This is the reaction art should have.

Knabe’s esthetic is a hybrid of antiquity and the modern, with a tangible timelessness which makes every piece of art Knabe creates feel like it’s ahead of it’s time, yet classical simultaneously. Knabe believes art helps create your own world, creating your own mythology.

“You get to ‘create your own mythology’ with art,” Knabe said to me. “People should feel empowered to create their own world with their own intellectual bent on things – thus creating your own mythical world. I ask clients to envision their dreams and ask what inspires them.”

Walter’s approach to his art matches that of my writing process. When I interview someone, I always find out what it is that they love.

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Artwork by Walter Knabe

Knabe’s art is well-known across the country and around the globe, and yet proudly calls Indianapolis home. He used to live in NYC and studied with Warhol. His client list is a ‘Who’s Who’ across the globe. I used to spend time in his studio while it was located in the Stutz building, walking in one day to find him getting off a call with Drew Barrymore.

Knabe began his career creating large wall murals. Warhol said, “Jerry Hall has an empty wall, go paint something”. These large murals influenced Walter’s hand-painted and hand silk-screened wallpaper. He continues to evolve, expanding his offerings through a wide variety of mediums.

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Artwork by Walter Knabe – “Everything that you imagine is real”

Today, there are new tools at Knabe’s disposal to utilize for his creations, such as digitizing techniques. This tool helps expand Knabe’s pattern collection, allowing for a selection of eight hundred colors. Eight. Hundred. Colors. Knabe is a kid in a candy store of his creation – a lab for his mythology.

What’s perpetually fascinated me about Walter since I met him 17 years ago, is his process. He doesn’t know what he is painting when he starts. It’s like his body knows a language he can’t yet translate except to allow it to flow through him, using his body as the vessel. At some point he steps back and says, “Hello! I know what this is.” It’s at this moment, the acknowledgment of the creative element and the creator become one.

In my storytelling presentation that I share with business owners, I strongly encourage fostering creativity. It’s a requirement for success. Brene Brown recently stated, “The only unique contribution we make in this world will be born of creativity.”

Artwork by Walter Knabe
Artwork by Walter Knabe

What amazes me is that Walter lives in that space of creating unique contributions almost daily. Some of us would be happy with one bolt of creative inspiration, spurring us to create our own masterpiece, regardless what our canvas is. Mine is writing, although I feel I do as much or more speaking than typing.

When Walter stated that he wanted to inspire others to “create their own mythology” I took that challenge to express what that is – what that looks like, how it feels. His expression of elements of his mythology is through art. While mine may be partially expressed through purchasing his art, I write and re-write my story on a daily, if not hourly basis. We all have that power – to change our story. If you don’t love where this chapter is taking you, write a new one – and make it of mythical proportions.

Kara Kavensky

Kara Kavensky