The founding of Tatia Gilstrap’s nonprofit, Mind Expansion Community Services, Inc., was inspired by a frightening incident involving her then 12-year-old son. He experienced a seizure in his middle school classroom, fell unconscious, and teachers and students thought he died.
The incident made it clear to Gilstrap that information and awareness were needed for people whose medical conditions were not apparent. MECS helps students and their family members bridge social gaps between “differently-abled and typical individuals,” she says, through talks in schools, social coaching, community service, medical awareness and consultations. The organization also educates people about how to respond to medical emergencies involving people with hidden disabilities.
“With most of the people who we serve, you’re unable to tell that they have a hidden disability. And individuals with conditions such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome, epilepsy, diabetes and ADD/ADHD are subject to social tension like teasing, bullying and peer rejection,” says Gilstrap, a registered nurse who works as a quality specialist at Sibley Memorial Hospital. “We create a safe space where these individuals can learn and grow from each other and build self-esteem.”
As an example of her volunteer work, she arranged a prom experience for a high school senior who manages an autism spectrum disorder. She coached the student and date (who also has a disability) on social etiquette, appropriate conversation and what to wear.
A component of the organization, called Hidden Inspirations Project (HIP) Kids, Youth & Young Adults, is facilitating a student support group that sponsors monthly social meet-ups, and awareness meetings on Sundays for two hours at a local parks and recreation center.
In the past, grant funding allowed the organization to provide scholarships, which helped people with hidden disabilities attend college and trade schools. Currently, they are raising funds for operational costs, scholarships and group skills outings.