Wheaton School District 200 Transition Program: A Place of Grace

  • Sarah, right, shown with her sister Rachel, found a place of friendship and belonging with District 200's Transitions program.

    Sarah, right, shown with her sister Rachel, found a place of friendship and belonging with District 200's Transitions program. Courtesy of Christopher Garcia

 
 
Updated 6/14/2022 1:19 PM

Sarah was born with Down syndrome and autism. She has endured two heart surgeries and a hip brace to keep her femurs inside their sockets. She also suffers from speech apraxia which means she needs an assistive talking device to interact with the world -- a talker she manipulates with surprising speed and skill.

Sarah can walk; she can run (sort of). And before she started having too much pain in her hips, she could dance. She spun like an ice skater in a kind of ecstasy, eyes nearly closed, in a trance-like state that resembles descriptions of early church mystics in the incarnation of a toddler -- hands out, as if she were blessing the room.

 

When she was about 3, I stopped by her class at Easter Seals. I did not want to disrupt her day (disrupting Sarah's routine is never an easy proposition), so I was watching her at play with the other children in the school playground from inside her classroom. Her teacher joined me at the window.

I saw Sarah walk toward the small slide. Her teacher said: "watch this. They came up with this on their own." One of the girls called out "Sarah is going to slide!" A little boy replied, "I've got her." As she climbed slowly up the ladder, he was right behind her encouraging her along. As Sarah got to the top, the manic movements of the kids on the top part of the slide (where there was also a little castle-like turret) slowed down measurably, and the kids let her slowly move to the top of the metal slide.

The little boy said, "Are you ready?" She held her arms up and he gently pushed her over the edge, she screamed with delight, arms up, all the way down. That's when I noticed one of the girls at the bottom of the slide waiting for her. As she hit the ground the girl waiting for her folded her up in her arms -- part hug, part protection to keep her from falling.

"They did that?" Her teacher smiled, "All on their own. In one day." I told her: "In my profession that is called a reasonable accommodation. But I can't always get adults to behave that graciously." No whining, no complaining, just patience and grace. These kids did not see a child with Down syndrome; they just saw their friend who needed a little patience, a small kindness -- friendship.

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June 3 was Sarah's last day at Wheaton-Warrenville Unit District 200's Transition program. For the last four years, she has checked her school bag in the morning, went to her talker to speak the words: "Car … school. Bye!" She used to take the class roll call with her talker when the classroom went online during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

When I see her march into the classroom with her roller backpack, she recognizes a place where she belongs, particularly in a world that more and more has no place for young people like her. The Transition teachers, aids and staff created a world that sees her, recognizes her, accommodates her and she feels that acceptance acutely.

When she would take roll online, she was participating in the rhythm of her world and calling out to all of her classmates. She belonged and felt a kinship that we all need on a profound level. Many of us have lost that kinship in our isolation during the pandemic. I am scared that I may not be able to replace that ethos and that feeling now that Transition is over.

We all need a place of kinship. The place within a neighborhood that makes it a neighborhood. Solving the world's problems with Duke over at Have a Bean in the morning, talking classic rock with Mike at Mile Long Records. Talking COVID-19 mandates with attorneys and judges after status motion calls.

I know when my daughter is afraid. I know when she is tentative, concerned, and I know when she needs me to take her out of a frightening situation. I also know when she feels like she belongs: her morning prep for school, her school bag, her class, her teachers -- her friends. It is a world that daily pulled her in its spiritual and intellectual orbit. These children see one another, not each other's disabilities and physical challenges. They simply see their friends. They certainly see us.

Transition was a world of acceptance and patient affection -- a place of grace.

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