Story by Mary King-Moore. Photos by Jan Osborn.
Twenty-three years ago, John Poston gathered a bunch of his real estate friends for a party to raise money for the school his twins were attending. Fast forward to 2022, and what started as a loose group that gathered together for a one-time event, is now 400 members strong with multiple fundraisers every year. The TouchDown Club is a nonprofit organization dedicated to The Ashford Rise School of Dallas. Their mission is two-fold: raise money for the kids and have fun doing it.
The Ashford Rise School of Dallas is located in the Moody Family YMCA in Highland Park. Since 1998 the school has been educating children who have developmental disabilities, from ages six months to six years. Replicating a program developed by the University of Alabama, The Rise School provides an inclusive environment and the resources to meet the educational needs of every child in the program, those with disabilities and those without. Enrollment ranges from 60 to 65 students a year, with approximately 80 children on the waitlist.
What makes The Rise School unique is the inclusive model of educating children with various abilities. The classrooms mix together children with and without disabilities, all learning together in the same environment. There is a team of occupational therapists, physical therapists, music therapists, and speech therapists. The school employs highly qualified teachers with masters’ degrees (or who are working towards their master’s degree). There are also two teaching assistants in each classroom which allows a low student-teacher ratio of 1:4.
Kimber Westphall’s daughter began the program last August and says, “I love to see our little girl interact with all her friends. Before I even knew I was pregnant, I wanted my child to be part of the Rise community. She gets so excited to go to school each and every day and the teachers are so invested in the mission, in her and all the other students.”
“The model is beautiful,” she says, “benefiting everyone involved. I think it really focuses on recognizing everyone’s individual abilities first and foremost. If I can instill anything in my child, I pray and hope it’s empathy. If that’s the bedrock of her character, then I will be more confident raising her and thinking about her life path.”
“Really every child is a success because this inclusion model allows every child to meet their potential and understand how they’re being successful,” says the director of The Rise School, Maude Pampel. “All of the kids are smart, and by having this mindset and understanding that everybody has different abilities, everybody can be successful in their own way.” Maude says that the school also employs adults with disabilities as assistants in the classrooms. “They’re really valuable to all the teachers. When one of them is absent, we really feel it.” This structure reinforces to the families, students, and community that adults with developmental disabilities can hold fulfilling jobs and be contributing members to our communities.
The Rise School tries to keep the school costs comparable to other preschool programs. Because they understand that many families might be spending more on therapies and doctors appointments, the school also offers financial aid programs. One of the major contributors to the school has been The Touchdown Club. Charles Polansky, the chairman for the annual Big Texas BBQ competition, says, “The club will raise approximately $850 thousand this year for school operations.”
The Big Texas BBQ competition started as a tailgate party in an office parking lot. Many of the members were frequent visitors to an annual rib cookoff in Hico, Texas and discussed doing a version of that cookoff here in Dallas as a fundraiser. Now in its eighth year, The Touchdown Club is going big—the BBQ competition will be at the Cotton Bowl on May 21st, and promises to be a full day of fun for families. Charles says “it’s still kind of the small little event feel, but we are trying to open it up on a bigger field to a bigger audience.”
Attendees must purchase a general admission ticket to the event. The ticket gives access to an open bar, free food, and a full day of live music. Cash Byers and Big Valley are performing early in the afternoon and Austin-favorite Gary P. Nunn closes the event. There will also be a kid zone with bounce houses and face painting and much more. All of the proceeds from the event will benefit The Ashford Rise School of Dallas.