GLENVIEW — The smiles run big in the Schrero house, as does the gratitude, for the little girl who brightens the room even though doctors predicted she'd barely be able to function after undergoing major surgery as a baby.
Complications when Nora Schrero was born led to "pretty profound brain damage," her mother Lauren remembers.
"It was a devastating, terrifying time for us," Lauren said.
As Nora got older, Lauren called her cousin and dearest friend, Amanda Martinsen, who teaches at Glenview's Glen Grove Elementary School. She asked her to do one thing: teach her students to be kind to those with disabilities.
That was the beginning of what is now known as "The Nora Project," a weekly program where students are paired up with other students that have disabilities to engage, learn and play.
"Having these kids appreciate what it's like in someone else's shoes for a day, a year, a week or a minute at a really young age, it gives them the opportunity for growth and appreciation for the rest of their lives," Nora's dad Adam Levy observed.
The core of The Nora Project centers around three questions: What does it mean to be normal? What does it mean to be a good friend? And why do we share our stories with others? Over the course of the year, the students study different disabilities and explore what it means to be empathetic.
"What we're trying to do here is essentially teach empathy and kindness; how to stand in someone else's shoes and have sort of an intensive experience there," Lauren said.
After, the friends meet up in the classroom for activities that allow the students to bond. The final phase of The Nora Project involves the students creating video documentaries of their journey and experiences with their Nora Friends.
"I like that Tobey is always smiling and happy. I also like that he likes funny noises; we have that in common," Glen Grove student Humzah Zhdan said.
That initial effort has now morphed into a program that is in 25 classrooms across four states. While Nora was healing and growing at home, young minds and outlooks were changing because of her. Kids made connections and friendships not just in the classroom, but also online through the 21 documentaries that have been created so far.
"Every time we sign up a new school, I think, 'there's a classroom of kids that will say hi to my daughter when she walks down the street,'" Lauren said.
For more information and to learn how to get your school involved with The Nora Project, head to TheNoraProject.ngo.