The Nora Project’s flagship program is a yearlong elementary-school curriculum that pairs children with disabilities with students in participating classrooms. They get to know each other. It’s educational, sure—but what it’s really teaching is empathy. Here, a conversation with Executive Director Lauren Schrero Levy, whose daughter inspired the nonprofit.
How does The Nora Project work?
It starts right when school begins and ends at the end of the year; our teachers spend about an hour a week on the curriculum. In the first phase of the project, students study empathy. In the second phase, meet their new friends with disabilities. And then in the third phase of the project, students focus on storytelling—understanding their own stories and understanding what it means to learn another person’s story. The final phase is the project: students create documentaries and host a red carpet film festival at their schools to showcase the lessons they’ve learned over the course of the year.
And you really are a new organization, right?
We got our nonprofit status in January of 2017. We started out in four schools, three of them local and one in Atlanta. We sort of grew, by word of mouth, to eight schools the following year—this year we’re in 32 schools.
That’s a sharp upward slope.
It is, and we have a waiting list. The amount of interest in the program is significant and exciting.
Is part of the fundraising to get cameras to make the films?
The cost for us to enter a classroom is about $5,000, and there are various items that go into that number. We provide all of our classrooms with iPads, microphones and tripods and all the things they need to capture footage throughout the school year to create their documentaries. Plus, our teachers get activity-day stipends so they can purchase things to make their Nora Project really special. They can buy adaptive scissors or cool parachutes or anything they think will help facilitate fun and inclusion in their classroom.
Yeah, our kids love playing with parachutes.
Kids with disabilities can engage with that?
Yes. Kids with disabilities can engage in almost any activity, with adaptations.
Your mission is about empathy—but it seems like it’s also about seeing people we don’t usually see.
Absolutely. We ask parents at the beginning of the year what their goals for their child are, and we’ve had multiple parents say “I want my child to be seen.” Of course we all want to be seen—this is universal. There was one story in particular that I love. We have one little girl who is participating for the fourth year. She has a facial disorder and had always been laughed at. She was featured in one of the documentaries and on posters and people were pointing at her like she was a movie star. It was the first time people were staring at her in a good way. They were seeing who she is on the inside, and it was so beautiful.
That sounds like the mission succeeding.
What we want is disability and difference to be something that doesn’t jar everyone. It’s just a part of the normal human experience like any other difference. It’s something that we can accept and integrate with some compassion and move on.
Does it seem like there’s not much empathy around these days?
In 2012 some Harvard researchers did a study and declared an empathy crisis: 10,000 students were surveyed, and asked what was more important: their own personal achievements and happiness, or caring for others. Eighty percent said their own personal achievements and happiness were more important to them.The world is becoming increasingly competitive. We’re communicating through screens. We aren’t really connecting to each other the way we used to and all of this leads to isolation. The Nora Project is one way to really slow people down and challenge them to connect.
All of this came out of an extraordinarily difficult experience.
I feel lucky. I know people say we are inspiring but I have a hard time really understanding that because we have this great project that gives meaning to our lives and makes us feel like we can make a difference. I had nothing like it before… now I have a real mission and passion and it makes life a lot more exciting.