I originally wrote this back in January, but as my blog has moved here, I didn’t want to forget this. This day absolutely changed me in so many ways…
(image shows the Cornell University hockey team with Franziska Racker Centers’ Executive Director Dan Brown)
“We envision a world where all people know they belong.
This is the vision of the agency where I work. It’s not just our vision, it is my personal mission and a goal for the people who I work with every day. And it needs to be your personal mission as well.
You now have one job: go out into the community and get to know someone with a disability. Talk to someone who is different from you. Include people with differences in your life, in your activities. And take part in theirs. This should be the job of every single person in this room, no excuses.”
These are the words I spoke to the 28 members of the Cornell Hockey team at the end of their recent visit. We have a great relationship with this team and with our community, and we wanted these young men to have a chance to visit the pre-K classrooms where kids from ages 3-5 learn together. The classrooms are integrated classrooms, which means that children who have disabilities work and learn and play side-by-side with children who are typically developing.
When I first met this group, all they were told about me was that I had a son who is autistic and who went to this school. All I knew about them is that they are students who play hockey, and that maybe one or two were willing to speak up and mention someone they knew with a disability.
As we walked down the hall toward the class, one of the guys mentioned that he had visited this past summer on a day when the Cornell Companion therapy animals were there. “Guys, seriously. They had a LLAMA.” was his main comment, and this was met by disbelief and some laughter. I put on my tour guide persona (a.k.a. I walked backwards while talking to the group behind me) and launched into my “why this school is so awesome and by the way there’s a llama” speech. It goes a little something like this:
“This school is incredible- really! When my son first came here, he didn’t speak yet, he didn’t play with other kids. He was scared of the swings, and really would just hum to himself and play alone. And through his daily therapies here, including occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy, he blossomed. Oh- and once a week they get a visit from therapy animals, including the coolest llama ever!”
By the end of this well-rehearsed speech, we had reached the class. The teacher- my son’s former teacher and my personal hero- stepped out to prepare the guys for how to handle certain situations. The thing to know is that some of the kids in the class are still figuring out where they are in relation to the rest of the world. And sometimes they can be too rough or a little up-close-and-personal.
After introductions were made, we all went to the gym.
For thirty minutes, I watched pure magic happen.
One boy hopped on a tricycle, shouting “you can’t catch me!”. Immediately, the seemingly tallest member of the hockey team grabbed another trike and contorted his six feet or so of body onto this child’s toy. And he couldn’t catch that boy after all, but he sure tried!
One girl grabbed the hand of a team member and dragged him over to the play structure.
Two little boys grabbed a giant inflated ball and proceeded to drag their new friends to the basketball hoop.
And several children who rarely approach anyone gradually moved in close to ask the name of one young man.
To witness all of this was… moving to say the least. I dreaded telling them when time was up, and hugs were shared from the guys in my group to these amazing children. As we left the room and walked back down the hall, I asked them this: “So! Who’s ready to start working with children in special education?”, which was met with a delightful chorus of “ME!” from all of them. ALL of them.