By FRED KRONER
Morgan Cheek learned years ago that an education consisted of more than problem-solving and memorizing facts.
The 2017 Mahomet-Seymour High School graduate has had a penchant for learning to interact with others.
Before she reached high school, Cheek was active in the Bulldog Buddies program that was open to junior high students. She transitioned to the Freshmen Mentoring Program once she was in high school.
Cheek’s interests continued to grow and branch out. Through friends, she discovered the PALS program, which includes a yearly, week-long camp at Elmhurst College, in suburban Chicago. She has served as a counselor for the past two summers.
“PALS is a non-profit that promotes inclusion for young adults with Down Syndrome,” Cheek said. “The motto is ‘This (camp) is our place’ and their disability doesn’t define them.”
It’s not a cause that she embraced because a family member or close family friend has Down Syndrome.
“I enjoy working with people with special needs,” Cheek said. “People are uneducated about how to address them, and they don’t get enough credit for what they can do.”
Cheek is not waiting until summer vacation to continue making an impact.
A freshman at the University of Kentucky, she is serving as a PALS ambassador this semester, “raising awareness and fundraising on my college campus,” she said.
The reaction has been mixed. Though she has raised $500 since January, at times she finds, “some people don’t understand the importance.”
Inclusion is not a concept she was force-fed.
“I’ve been accepting of others,” she said, “and never viewed anyone as different from me.”
Cheek used the fall term to get adjusted to college while being away from home and learning to manage her daily schedule.
The human health science major, who is on a pre-occupational therapy track, enjoys being generous with her time.
“I love giving everyone an equal opportunity,” Cheek said. “Not many people realize how fortunate we are to be given opportunities for life after high school, whereas these young adults don’t always have as many options.
“Because you are a young adult with Down Syndrome doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing something. I want to help promote after-high school activities. We need to give them more opportunities that can be part of their life.”
Emesha Jackson, a PALS staff member, has worked with and observed Cheek during her time as a camp counselor at Elmhurst.
“She is a wonderful volunteer and has a lot of social awareness,” Jackson said. “She is very outgoing and easy to connect with.
“She went above and beyond connecting with everybody. She puts in an effort to connect with others around her.”
Cheek roomed with the same camper, a young lady from Hong Kong, each of the last two years.
“She built a friendship that lasted far beyond our program,” said Jackson, emphasizing how Cheek encouraged her roommate to come out of her shell. “Last year, (the camper) created her own dance onstage.”
Cheek continues to flourish in her duties as an ambassador.
“She is a great leader and is doing a wonderful job promoting programs, recruiting and fundraising,” Jackson said. “In the future, I would love to see her continue on a leadership trajectory.”
PALS — which is not an acronym for anything — is a program, Jackson said, that “promotes socialization between the Downs Syndrome population and volunteers.
“It’s neat to see people embrace the environment of acceptance where everyone is considered equals. This should be everybody’s reality.”
Kayla Davis, the personnel director for Camp PALS Chicago, said she is amazed how well persons who are unknown to each other bond during the week-long camp.
“PALS is truly a magical experience. Our volunteers come is as complete strangers, mostly with the desire to serve others, and are passionate about working with individuals in the disability community, and leave as a family,” Davis said. “After a week at PALS, our volunteers leave passionate about our inclusive model and with a newfound love for the Down Syndrome community and friendships that last a lifetime, which I believe would perfectly describe Morgan.
“At the end of the week, we experience what we call PPD, or Post PALS Depression, due to the extreme fun and friendships that come from camp and wishing that we could have this experience every single day.”
Davis has worked directly with Cheek for the past two summers.
“Morgan is so compassionate and has helped to recruit other volunteers for our organization and to fundraise to help make camp possible,” Davis said. “Morgan is so genuine, and a wonderful addition to the PALS community.
“I am so lucky to work with her each summer. She is an amazing addition to the PALS family.”
For those interested in helping Cheek with her fundraising efforts, donations can be made to her PALS fundraising page, which goes directly to PALS but allows her to get credit for her ambassadors program. For those who prefer, visit the website: http://donate.palsprograms.org.