Friday, October 15, 2010

South Carolina woman with Down syndrome volunteers as teacher's aide in special ed classroom

From The Independent Mail in Anderson, S.C.:

POWDERSVILLE, S.C. — A fifth-grade special-needs student in Powdersville Elementary School began to scream in a temper tantrum. Mary Brown gently led him outside to the swing set and began singing to him.

“I like to play with them,” Brown said. “I am the teacher’s aide.”

At Powdersville, with the teacher who taught her the lessons of childhood some 15 years ago, Brown, now 23, is also learning to be an adult.

Brown has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes lifelong mental retardation, developmental delays and other problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. Because the disorder varies in severity, problems stemming from the syndrome can range from moderate to serious. Down syndrome occurs in one of every 700 to 800 infants.

Brown was a student under Barbara Masaki, the special-needs instructor at Powdersville, when Masaki was at Berea Elementary School in the Greenville County school district. Now, Brown has returned to Masaki’s classroom to volunteer with the class of nine autistic or Down syndrome children.

The bond the two women formed those many years ago in the classroom has never left.

“It’s different in a special-needs classroom,” Masaki said. “Our students are with us for three or four years or more. I get to really know the students and their families. I become more than a teacher. I am mentor and so much more.”

Masaki ran into Brown and her family this summer. Brown was looking for a job.

“She had been working at a fast-food place, but they were really taking advantage of the fact that she was disabled,” Masaki said. “So, I offered her a ‘job’ here.”

Brown’s unpaid job is to be a teacher’s aide in Masaki’s classroom. While the position is voluntary, Brown works like the two full-time paid teacher’s aides, Rita Evans and Wendy Usary. The paid aides help Masaki with the classroom teaching everything from potty training to table manners to play time to desk work.

Brown helps control the children and helps keep the classroom running the three days a week she’s there.

What makes her special, Masaki said, is that she’s able to bridge the gap between the students and the teachers and aides.

“She’s one of them, but she’s also one of us,” she said. “She sees things from the disabled point of view. She’s helping me as a teacher, and she’s helping them as a student. And when she comes out here with them to calm them down or play with them, they don’t see her as the big bad authority figure like they see us. They see her as one of them.”

Brown takes on responsibility that will help her in the future.

“I like getting the lunches and I like reading to them,” Brown said. “I like going on the swings. She’s my good old teacher. I love her.”

One of her duties is to bring lunch.

Masaki said the children eat in their classroom because of their special needs.

“I have three autistic children. The noise level of the cafeteria, it’s just something they can’t take,” she said.

With colored pictures of what each child ordered for lunch, Brown is able to go to the cafeteria and bring the lunches back to the classroom to the children.

And it’s up to Brown to help the students learn new games on the SmartBoard, a large, interactive board that displays classroom materials. With her, the other students feel a special bond as well.

As Alexis “Lexi” Parlier, a 6-year-old first-grade girl with Down syndrome, grabs at flies hovering above a frog’s head on the board, Brown shows her how to touch the flies. The game is designed to help the children learn eye-hand coordination. At first Lexi is absorbed by the images on the screen. Then she grabs at the flies, her fist opening and closing against the screen.

Brown comes to her side and points to a fly. The frog’s tongue flicks out to catch it as Lexi squeals with joy. When all the flies are gone, with Brown’s help, the words ‘You Win’ come onto the screen and Lexi runs to Brown’s arms for a congratulatory hug.

“She’s a poster child for what a Downs can do,” Masaki said.

And that makes her a model for the school, said Principal Debbie Gill.

“I think she is a wonderful role model for all of our students,” Gill said. “She is doing something to make a difference in somebody else’s life, to help and give back, and that’s what we want all of our kids to learn to do.”

Her presence in the school is inspirational, Gill said.

“I think it’s been more of an affirmation … it’s not an eye opener … but an affirmation of what we teach our students every day, that every person has worth and every person has value and that every person has strengths and weaknesses,” Gill said. “The opportunity to interact with these children and with Mary is an invaluable experience. Mary’s just an inspiration to all of us because she has such a positive attitude and such a good spirit about her. She’s just a joy to be around.”

And Brown works hard to help in the classroom.

At night, she practices writing the date, so she can sign-in for her volunteer duties on her own. And the teachers help her to do math when it comes to the students’ lunch money. On the weekends, she practices her reading so she can read to the children during her time with the class.

Masaki said she hopes that Brown’s work in the classroom will help prepare her for when she can get another job.

“My goal for my students is to give them a chance for them to be the best human being they can be and to take them as far academically as I can,” Masaki said. “I would love for her to get a part-time job in a day-care center or in a classroom setting if they will work with her.”

It’s all about what Brown can do and what kind of a person Brown is, Masaki said.

“I’m disgusted when I see people reacting to her like she’s a disabled person. She’s a person,” Masaki said. “A lot of disabled people wouldn’t be able to do this job. But a lot of nondisabled adults wouldn’t be able to do this job either. And she loves it. She loves working with the kids.”

And while there are things Brown can’t do, there are also things she does that others should emulate. Masaki said.

“She will always be a trainable child. Even when she is in her 80s, she will still be functioning on the level of a trainable child,” Masaki said. “But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a little bit of the child in all of us?”