Students at new Sunset Park specialized school, iBRAIN, take to the New York Fashion Week runway • Brooklyn Paper

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iBRAIN student at fashion show

Students from the International Institute for the Brain, or iBRAIN — a specialized school with a flagship campus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and a brand-new location in Sunset Park — kicked off New York Fashion Week last week with the iCAN Do Anything Fashion show, taking to the runway in designs made with and for each student.

“The idea came about from a collective of, just, generically, the mindset of our staff and our families and our kids is, while we’re not going to create false expectations, we’re not going to set arbitrary limitations on what our kids can and can’t do,” said Patrick Donahue, iBRAIN’Founder. “Being in New York, which is kind of the epicenter of fashion, it seemed like a natural next step to kind of showcase our kids, and allow them to be the supermodels for the day.”

Students collaborated with a team to create outfits that met their needs and preferences. They walked the runway with friends, family, and professional models. The event raised money for the school’s new fashion lab. Photo courtesy iBRAIN

Donahue founded iBRAIN’s first location in the Upper West Side in 2013, nine years after his now 17-year-old daughter Sarah Jane was left with severe brain damageShe was shaken just days after her birth by a Lenox Hill Hospital nursing staff member. The Sunset Park campus was opened last spring. The school offers small classes, one-on-1 support, education plans and a host other supportive services for students and their families.

The school partnered closely with a local fashion design company Jeffrey Ampratwum, whose team worked with each individual student to create an outfit that suited their likes and needs — many students-turned-models at iBRAIN use mobility devices or other assistive technology, and need clothing that works with their tech, not against it. Students, accompanied either by family members, friends, or professional models, paraded down the runway wearing brightly-colored dresses and patterned vests as well as classic varsity-style jackets.

It was a “magical night,” Donahue said.

“To see the pride in the kids as some of them strutted down the runway, some of them were escorted down the runway in a chair … just the smiles and the pride that they had, and the families had, and the audience, it was just a magical night,”He said.

The Sept. 8 show was iBRAIN’s first foray into the fashion world, but certainly not its last.

“We’re going to make this an annual event, the plan for next year is to coordinate and partner with all the various different fashion houses in the New York area so they themselves can work with each student,” Donahue said. “One student may have a Ralph Lauren outfit that’s designed with that fashion house, the other one may have a Perry Ellis, Nicole Miller, so on and so forth.”

people on runway at iBRAIN fashion show
Donahue indicated that future shows will be larger and better with more partnerships with designers. He hopes the shows, and the school’s future fashion lab, will help to make adaptive, accessible fashion more common. Citer Studios/iBRAIN

The fashion show was followed by a silent auction and cocktail hour. It raised approximately $100,000 for the school as well as a new project, the iBRAIN fashion laboratory. The lab will have an eye toward next year’s fashion show, Donahue said, and on changing the fashion industry as a whole, by “looking to collaborate with various different manufacturers and designers so we can look to design clothing that’s more accessible for these very unique individuals.”

Some of iBRAIN’s students have G-tubes, Donahue explained, or wear braces on their feet and legs, or have motor skill issues that make dealing with regular buttons and other fastenings difficult. Most clothing brands don’t factor those needs into their designs.

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“There’s already stuff out there, but our goal is to build [the lab] into more accessible clothing and that that accessible clothing is actually accessible,” Donahue said.

The fashion lab will be just the newest addition to iBRAIN’s comprehensive programs. Donahue explained that each student works closely with a paraprofessional, and receives a variety therapies depending on their needs. With extended school days and school years, it all adds up to about $200,000 worth of services each year — but iBRAIN families don’t pay any of it.

Specialized education and programs are pricey and often out-of-reach for the students who need them, Donahue said, and parents must sue the city’s Department of Education to prove that public schools would not be adequate for their children in order to get reimbursed by the department. To help, he founded a nonprofit legal firm that takes care of each iBRAIN student’s case pro-bono, and the school suspends payments until parents are reimbursed and are able to pay their fees. 

“The only out-of-pocket expense to enroll in our program is a $100 refundable deposit,” Donahue said. “We then suspend all of the payments while the lawyers go do their thing. This is a core philosophy of mine, a family’s socioeconomic status should have no bearing on their access to a free and appropriate education.”

iBRAIN fashion show makeup
Models and other fashion industry professionals helped to design each student’s outfit and got them ready for the show. It was a “magical night,”The school raised over $100,000 in the first round. Photo courtesy iBRAIN

It’s an imperfect system, but, practically, it wouldn’t be fair to ask already-struggling public schools to take on students with such specific needs, Donahue said, and it wouldn’t be fair to the students either.

“With our kids, especially the ones we’re currently servicing with severe disabilities … the largest rehabilitation system for kids is not actually the medical system, but it’s actually the school system,”He said. “You may have a child who spends a month, three months, in a medical facility, if they have good insurance, they might get rehab. But then they’re transitioned back into the community and basically transitioned back into the school systems.”

Sunset Park was reopened. “light launch”In the spring “work out the kinks,” Donahue said, but enrollment is now open and rolling — students can begin at any time, not just at the beginning of the school year. Brooklyn families interested in the school may have their child evaluated at no cost to see if iBRAIN would work for them.

“Not only is there no cost to attend, there’s no cost to be assessed whether or not it’s the right fit,”He said. “I would just recommend people go to the website or call is and schedule an appointment or a tour.”

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