TAYLOR, Mo. — Almost 20,000 masks with a clear window to show facial expressions and help facilitate lip reading will be distributed to area schools as part of Down Country’s new #Smile4EveryChild campaign.

Kate Dougherty, president and founder of the non-profit organization Down Country, said staff members have been wearing the specially-designed masks since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization with no paid employees or staff focuses on three facets: Every child is a gift, every child can learn and every child learns differently.

But during the pandemic, Dougherty said individuals with disabilities have “kind of been pushed to the wayside.” As Down Country staff members thought about ways to increase accessibility for individuals who are hearing impaired and people who rely on lip reading, they came up with the #Smile4EveryChild campaign. Dougherty said the campaign began following the establishment of the mask mandate for Illinois schools.

“It levels the playing field for everybody,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty stressed the campaign is focused on increasing accessibility for all, not to be part of the debate regarding mask usage. Rather, Dougherty wanted to be sure students and staff in schools where masks are mandated had the opportunity for to receive masks free of charge. Schools can purchase the masks at cost in districts where masks have not been mandated.

She said children need to see lips as they blend consonants together, and the word stop could be said jokingly, to pause or to signify immediate danger. Without being able to see facial cues and lips, Dougherty said it can be challenging for students and staff to identify the differences.

Dougherty said staff gave some of the masks out during the Rhinestones and Rodeo event. She said face shields provide the ability to see lips, but they aren’t accepted in every situation. And she said masks without a clear section pose significant challenges.

“It’s a vital need. I personally know about the need to see lips. I’ve watched people I love try to understand and hear, and when lips are covered — if you’re a lip reader or you’re a little bit hard of hearing, whether that’s totally deaf or whether you use lip reading to supplement — it’s extremely difficult to communicate,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty said a dear friend has a cochlear implant, and she has found it “extremely difficult” to pick up on lip reading and facial expressions for vital cues when lips are covered. With the clear masks, those cues and lip movements become a part of the communication and learning process again.

She said the situation isn’t perfect, but the campaign is an attempt to make things better for everyone. And she recalled some words of wisdom from her late grandfather which applied to the #Smile4EveryChild campaign.

“Remember Kate, nothing’s perfect, but we can always do better,” he said.

Dougherty is excited to be celebrating Down Country’s 11th birthday during a celebration from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 14 at the Rialto Banquet Center, 601 Broadway. “I Love” art submissions and “I Learn” scholarship applications will be accepted throughout the day, and free food and activities are planned.

To support the #Smile4EveryChild campaign, click on the picture of the mask, call or text 217-617-3568 or email info@upatdowncountry.com.

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