LEMONT – Kevin McMahon of Lemont has a 93-year-old great-uncle with special needs who had lived a satisfying life because of the opportunities people gave him.
So when a mutual friend introduced McMahon, 22, to David Schwartz, 23, of Lincolnwood, founder of We Are Lions – a for-profit company that commercially reproduces the artwork of individuals with special needs – McMahon had to get involved in what he called “the power of art.”
“I think visual art, like music, is transcendent,” said McMahon, marketing director. “It allows people to communicate with each other in a nonverbal way.
Schwartz said he was still in high school when he began developing a means for individuals with disabilities to share their creative talents in ways that were useful and practical, while only using resources that help the special-needs community.
This means that, instead of placing artwork in galleries where few people may see them, We Are Lions reproduces the art on products – T-shirts, cellphone cases, coffee mugs, pillows, shower curtains and tote bags, to name a few.
The artwork comes through partnerships with various nonprofits that work with people with special needs and from what Schwartz calls We Are Lions resident artists, people from throughout the world who submit art. Profits are split 50/50, Schwartz said.
The printers that We Are Lions uses are disability friendly, Schwartz said, meaning they either employ people with disabilities or support organizations that work with individuals with special needs. Assembly and packaging is done through various nonprofits.
“So we are involved in that community in every aspect as much as possible,” Schwartz said.
Inherent in the company’s name is the notion that all individuals, despite limitations, should feel like royalty. As with McMahon, Schwartz’s vision for We Are Lions began with a love for his uncle, who has schizophrenia.
“He’s the most amazing man in the world. Everyone should get to know him,” Schwartz said. “But it’s really hard because he’s got this illness that affects his life so profoundly. He acts different and talks different and looks a little different.”
We Are Lions merchandise is available online at www.wearelions.org and in gift shops throughout country that are run by We Are Lions partner nonprofits, Schwartz said. He and McMahon also seek a site in Lemont to open a We Are Lions boutique.
To further awareness, We Are Lions is beginning a Brand Ambassador program at Lemont High School, Schwartz said. To initiate it, McMahon contacted two people – Sandy Doebert, former superintendent for Lemont High School District 210, and John Young, the school’s athletic and activities director.
With them, McMahon discussed some ideas, including less-than-obvious benefits to students – learning to adopt an entrepreneurial spirit.
“We want to get kids thinking about that sooner and, at the same time, support an awesome cause,” McMahon said.
Doebert, who also is the director of alternative funding for District 210 and president of Little Mountain Community Theatre in Lemont, said she has known McMahon all his life and loved his idea. She said the district affirms activities that support individuals with disabilities.
“They raise their [students’] recognition that all individuals can have success,” Doebert said.
Although the program is only in preliminary planning stages, Young believes participating in the We Are Lions Brand Ambassador program could be a good service project for the students, and he appreciates McMahon’s enthusiasm for it.
“That was the same type of characteristic he had when he was a student and athlete at Lemont High School,” Young said.