By Karen Billing
Staff WriterThe Rancho Santa Fe Rappaport girls rappel.
On Aug. 20, Tali, 19, and Malia, 16, stepped off the top of the 33-story Manchester Grand Hyatt in the third annual “Over the Edge” event for Kids Included Together (KIT), a national non-profit based in San Diego that promotes inclusion for kids with disabilities.
Tali, 19, a Canyon Crest graduate and current sophomore at the University of Puget Sound and Malia, 16, a junior at Canyon Crest Academy, overcame their fears and rappelled 357 feet to help support the inclusion of children with disabilities in after-school programs.
“It was quite the adventure,” Tali said. While participants had to raise $2,000 to participate, the Rappaport teens raised $2,530, with an additional $1,000 grant from Mitsubishi to make t-shirts for their inclusionary program I AM NORM, a national campaign they helped start in 2009.
The two young activist sisters speak in a rhythm, their thoughts weaving into each other.
“I was freaked out, weeks prior,” Tali said of the rappel.
“I had been so excited, but our roles reversed at the top,” Malia said. “They had a cell phone to call down at the top — I called my dad and told him he could use my college fund for a car (should anything happen to Mali).”
Tali went first, leading the way for her little sister.
“When you’re up there on the edge, it’s freaky but it’s just that first step that’s the hardest,” Tali said. “It’s so significant and metaphorical, it was amazing to experience how hard that first step can be.”
After that first step, Malia wasn’t scared anymore — halfway down the sisters were dancing on the rope.
Through their work the last two years, the Rappaports have been trying to show how people can take that first step toward inclusion and how easy it is to accept and respect youth with disabilities in schools and communities.
Inclusion is something that the Rappaport girls have fought for since a young age.
“I always befriended the ‘special education’ students and made it a point to talk to them,” Tali said.
Malia remembers classmates cruelly making fun of a fellow student who made noises due to his Tourette syndrome and helping another who was left out due to the effects of autism. “I took some of the brunt, as well,” Tali said. “Girls can be nasty.”
The pair got involved with KIT and became buddies in Miracle League, helping children with disabilities play baseball at San Dieguito Park.
In 2009, they applied to become two of just 20 teens selected nationally to meet at a summit in Washington, D.C. to create a social media campaign to promote inclusion.
Tali said the group was “unbelievable,” all passionate about what they were there to do and all believing “diversity makes us stronger and discrimination breaks us down.”
One member of their group, Sarah Cronk of Iowa, recently won the 2011 Do Something Award’s $100,000 prize for her project The Sparkle Effect. Cronk’s Sparkle Effect was the first high school inclusive cheerleading squad that has now generated 26 squads in 15 states.
“That just shows how amazing the people we worked with are,” Tali said.
That teen summit spurned the I AM NORM, campaign, promoting inclusion and redefining normal. With six active members, they have filmed two commercials, made buttons and t-shirts.
Last year, Malia returned to Washington, D.C. to speak at the National Girl Scout Conference and spoke last November at the KIT’s National Conference on Inclusion, a four-day conference in which she figured into the keynote speaker’s address.
The girls also spread the message of I AM NORM at Comic-Con this summer. Tali said it was not a hard message to spread in a place where people were proud not to be “normal”— unafraid to be walking around dressed as ogres or superheroes.
At CCA this year Malia hopes to create a Norm chapter that would promote inclusion at their school.
Malia admits that her school is already very inclusive of all different kinds of personalities—“Normal at CCA is walking around in all neon, people wear ape suits and kilts!,” But, she said, hopefully the movement could spread so that a chapter is created at Torrey Pines High School, and a NORM Brigade could possibly visit elementary and junior high schools.
Tali is also put her singing and songwriting talents to work for a campaign song called “NORM,” now available on iTunes with all the proceeds going back to their efforts.
The girls have big ambitions for the future. Tali hopes to further her singing career and would like to become an occupational therapist.
Malia would love to attend UC Berkeley and aims to become an American Sign Language (ASL) teacher. This year she will also go for her Girl Scout Gold Award by bringing an I AM NORM program to her alma mater, R. Roger Rowe School.
As they move forward in life, the sisters also plan to continue their efforts to change people’s perceptions about what is normal, to teach people to rise above fear and prejudice so no one is left out and everyone has the same opportunities.
“Inclusion all the way,” Malia said, borrowing a line from her sister’s song.
“I think what people need to know is that inclusion isn’t hard,” Tali said. “It’s so easy if you are open to it.”
To learn more about I AM NORM, visit www.IamNorm.org.