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People Who Make SA Great: Advocate and coach for the special needs community

Melanie Cawthon noticed that San Antonio had a need, and she stepped up to fill it.

SAN ANTONIO — Hot chocolate and coffee for sale, on a chilly winter morning.

"Lilly, you want some hot chocolate?"

12-year-old Raj Mulwani's open for business at the Academy at Morgans Wonderland.

"Its' goin' good. It's really fun and I enjoy it,” he said. Raj has a small table set up to sell the hot beverages as students and parents enter the school.

 His mom, Alma Mulwani stands nearby, ready to lend a hand.

“His pediatrician said, if Forrest Gump were a real person, he would be Raj...."

Raj is a special needs kid with a rare disorder, and pediatricians first thought his life would be extremely limited.

"When he was in elementary, he started being nonverbal, and they thought, 'he's not gonna be able to speak,'” she said. “But here we are; he's selling coffee, and telling people his secret ingredient.. which is kindness."

Kindness he learned, at least in part, at Disability-SA, a tiny non-profit run by Melanie Cawthon. Founder, Chair and kindness coach.

"Tell me about leadership,” she said to a group of her special needs students. “How can we serve as leaders?”

She's been serving the special needs community most of her adult life, first as a fundraiser, then 12 years ago, she helped launch this concept, to coach those with special needs and encourage their inclusion everywhere.

"Understanding that they have ability and they can be included,” she said, “and that they deserve to be included."

She's the only employee here, with only one desk, but has a 6-member board and a budget of $200,000, to run annual programs including Fiesta Especial. Two young ladies in her class today are veterans of the Court.

“It really inspires my mind,” said Nicole Selby, “and I love her so much.”

Everybody loves her. Cawthon has no spouse or kids, but says the benefits of the work are all the fulfillment she needs...

"I know I'm making a difference, because every time we start another program here, there's more people,” she said. “And the day that nobody shows up on the door, I'll move on to something else."

Back at the Academy, a school for special needs students, it's time for the class to begin, with more of Melanie's kids leading the way. And parents credit Melanie with giving their kids the encouragement and self-confidence to take on the world.

"When you think inclusion,” said Malwani, “she's the person to go to."

Melanie Cawthon's the person to go to for encouragement and inclusion of people with every range of ability. That's why she's another one of the people who make San Antonio Great.