MONTVILLE, NJ – Pathways for Exceptional Children celebrated its 15th anniversary on May 6 with a balloon release, walk, concert and awards ceremony.

The organization, which started as a parent support group formed by president Melinda Jennis following the special education diagnosis of her son, Jacob, has grown and flourished over the years. Jennis told the audience at the event, held at Montville Township High School, that a reporter kept trying to write articles stating she conducts activities for “children with disabilities.”

“‘No,’ I told him,” she said. “This is not a ‘disabled organization.’ We’re an organization that tries to help every child achieve their fullest potential.”

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 With programs such as “Include Me!” and the many activities through Montville Township Recreation such as sports, learning to DJ, and video production, Pathways has aided children of many ability levels to find a place where they interact with others and learn new skills. The organization’s mentoring program has trained 37,500 people in New Jersey as peer leaders, Jennis said. The “Include Me!” movement is meant to call attention to the need to actively include special needs children in all ways, at school, on the playground, and everywhere.

“Fifteen years ago I never thought we would take a trip to Haiti the way we did last year with kids with and without disabilities,” Jennis told the audience. (Read about it here.)

“Montville Township has declared today ‘Include Me!’ Day and we want to thank them, and the people of Montville Township, for making us feel included, and helping us to be an organization that has gained so much from being a part of this community,” Jennis said.

The evening began with the release of 50 balloons, symbolizing all 50 states, and the hope that all would become inclusive of children with all levels of ability, Jennis said.

It was followed by a short walk through the school, meant to “rally people to bring a greater vision of  inclusion and equal opportunity to America,” according to a press release.

The kids then took over and Jennis acted as MC for the evening. The Pee Wee Cheerleaders presented some cheers, dance and singing groups performed, and the Pathways Rock Band performed several songs. DJs also presented music and light performances.

In addition, Jennis presented the “Make a Difference Award” to Matthew Marinelli. Jennis said Marinelli is her “right-hand man.” Jennis said he is a mentor to other children and always “patient, kind and creative.”

“Matthew, you have made a huge difference, and have helped make Pathways a place where children of all abilities can shine!” Jennis said.

Caitlyn Corradino read Marinelli’s plaque, which read in part, “you have become a role model of kindness and service to the students you teach and help, and you have made a lasting difference and become an inspiration to us all.”

Pathways also presented “Make a Difference” awards to two students at each of the Montville Township elementary schools and Lazar Middle School. Pathways asked the schools to select students who were role models and went “above and beyond to assist other students, and helped everyone feel they were included,” according to the program for the event. The students received medals and a certificate. They were:

Cedar Hill: Jacob, Matthew and Zachary Newmark

Hilldale: Nathaniel Kim and Sofia Modrak

William Mason: Rocco Vena and Hadley White

Valley View: Madison Musilli and Zoe Stark

Woodmont: Deanna Neff and Emily Taormina

Lazar: Victoria Feaster and Natalie Rossinow

The participants in the walk could seek sponsors in order to fundraise for Pathways. Top fundraiser for the event was Jack Tremella, who raised $600 and won a MacBook Air as a result. Second place went to Michael Papanila, who raised $220 and won a Hero Black 5 and third place went to Will Spellman, who raised $175 and won an instamatic camera.