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2018 ESL Jefferson Award Winner: Ashley Donlon

May 15, 2018 05:50 PM

Each year, we ask our viewers to nominate people from our community for their volunteerism. The ESL Jefferson Awards are part of the national Jefferson Award Foundation which strives to build a culture of service in communities across the country. Founded in 1972 by well-known public servants including former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Jefferson Awards are the country’s longest standing and most prestigious honor of its kind.

When you're young and you don't fit in, life is lonely. That's certainly the case for kids with disabilities.

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Ashley Donlon is a young woman who has spent the better part of a decade making sure children with disabilities always have a friend. 

It started so simply -- a little girl saw another who needed a friend.

Ashley was in the sixth grade when she spotted Oliva Cole in the back of the room. It's didn't matter to Ashley that Olivia had autism and spoke little. Ashley believed Olivia deserved a friend just like everyone else. 

So she became that friend.

"We were all in the front and she was in the back sitting alone and, I was just thinking, why is she alone? She should be included," Ashley says. "We didn't have to talk. We kind of just sat there. Just sat in peaceful quiet."

Over the years, the friendship grew. Ashley became a fierce advocate for those with disabilities and an active volunteer in the ties program.

Ashley became a model for other students. Children with and without disabilities would get together outside of school. 

For Olivia and dozens of other students with disabilities, Ashley's friendship, compassion, and acceptance was life-changing.

"Olivia was very, very shy," Ann Cole, Olivia's mother, says. "I was always afraid that she was going to be so shy that she would not ever develop fully to her potential because she would never come out of that shell. Ashley helped bring her out of that shell."

It's been almost a decade since Ashley befriended the quiet little girl in the back of the room, and she's glad she did.

"She's given me so much love," Ashley says. "And her family has given me so much love. It makes me want to be a better person."

Ashley is now in college majoring in nursing. She maintains a close friendship with Olivia and actively supports other young adults with disabilities in our community.

To find out more about the TIES program at your school district, visit the program's website.

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