One of the things I enjoy most about the National Character Education Forum is the true connection with like-minded people that a venue like that affords. That's why I'm delighted at having met today's guest blogger there last week.
Please join me in welcoming Victoria to our Corner.
My name is Victoria Hepp and I feel honored to be constructing a guest post for Barbara. At the National Forum on Character Education, I had the privilege of listening to her speak and was immediately inspired by her warm words, welcoming demeanor and passion for education. As she gave her speech, I knew that this new teacher had to purchase Barbara’s book and take the ideas to my future students. Imagine my surprise when, through a brief conversation at the signing booth, she generously, on-the-spot asked me to write a guest post for her! I do hope you enjoy hearing a little more about what piqued Barbara’s interest in my life and perhaps you will take heart as well.
As a child, I attended my fair share of birthday parties as most young children do. It’s easy and fun to get swept up in the atmosphere of a child’s party-music, balloons, laughter, gifts, cake, and of course, friends. For some, this last point does not come as easily or simply as one would hope. I remember one particular birthday party at a Hawaiian-themed restaurant/arcade (the COOLEST place in town to have your birthday party). The birthday girl, however, was a little different than most other 10 year old girls at the party. She didn’t speak, had a very particular diet, walked wobbly and was delighted by the simplest of actions. I met her at a summer camp and quickly became her friend (through such misdeeds as sneaking away from my group to spend time with her!) Emily*, however, was not a part of my group but rather continuing her school year in her life skills classroom. But over the course of the summer, she became my friend and I was invited to her birthday celebration in the fall. I didn’t know as a child what a meaningful dose of normalcy I’m sure that party was for Emily and her family. It was a day of belonging, happiness and celebration of a life that sadly many underestimate and devalue. I viewed it as simply going to a friend’s birthday party.
Many children with special needs do not have genuine friendships with those outside the roles of caregivers or service providers. Surely we are the ones that miss out when we do not have the chance to participate in the life of someone who can teach us so much. However, I know through my experiences as a child, and through my current position working with children with special needs, that having an acceptance of a diversity of abilities builds formidable character. I desire my students to have compassion for those different than them, not out of “necessity” but of a true connection with another human being. But for my students to gain this empathy and care, I need to demonstrate my commitment to it as well. I have to BE what I want my students to be and walk the talk. That’s how I stepped into my current role at Jill’s House.
Jill’s House is an overnight respite center for children with special needs in the DC Metro area. We care for children through weekend and weeknight stays so that families can be renewed and rejuvenated. As a Christian non-profit, we exist as a place to walk alongside families in bearing the weight that comes with raising a child with special needs. Though I could have entered the teaching field directly after graduating last May, I chose to be at this facility as part of a yearlong fellowship program with eight other passionate women in order to live our lives in service to this community. Every day the children I work with build my character in a variety of ways- empathy when relating to their parents, compassion for a child tired by seizures, patience for the children who function by their own rigid schedule, gentleness in responding to a child who gets overly upset and joy over painting a pony together or racing around the playground with wheelchairs, allowing the children to pretend to be firefighters together. And every day, I am granted the opportunity to understand just a little bit better what it is like to share community with these special people.
So how does this translate to our students? They need to see children with special needs as people to be loved and accepted, just as they deserve to be. Spending time with these children is crucial to easing feelings of discomfort and uncertainty. Exposure and shared activities can be used to increase understanding rather than pity. Find the opportunities to take part in shared experiences with special education classes, encourage your students to volunteer with organizations that support special needs (Special Olympics, therapeutic riding programs, etc.), use literature to encourage perspective taking and be a model in word and deed of treating all children with love. Through these interactions, their character will be developed in relating to all types of people, as mine has been.
I hope that at the birthday parties of your students and mine, a mixture of abilities would be represented and that they would all see each other as friends, plain and simple.
*Name has been changed
*Name has been changed
Author biography: Victoria Hepp is currently a childcare specialist at Jill’s House in VA. Originally from Bucks County in PA, she is a recent graduate of Messiah College where she earned a dual degree in Early Childhood Education (PK-4) and Special Education (PK-8). She has spoken at the Council for Exceptional Children’s International Conference and orchestrated a School-School service project between Messiah College and Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped in Uganda. She enjoys volunteering, running and reading! At the completion of her fellowship year, Victoria aspires to find a position as an elementary school teacher to equip students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to thrive in and serve our world in an inclusive and nurturing classroom environment.
Celebration and renewal; can you see why I asked her to share her passion with us? Thank you, Victoria, for your wonderful reminder about what's important.