BY JULIA PESCHETTI
Mother Teresa once said, “We cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” These words immediately bring to mind my little sister, Gianna, who has formed a bond with a young boy, Cameron, through their last year at Clarendon Elementary School—a bond which was highlighted for everyone in our family and the school during Gianna and Cameron’s 6th grade promotion. Cameron is a young boy who is on the autism spectrum. What started out as a volunteer activity at school for my sister has turned into such a cool friendship that, I think, ought to be emulated by young school children across the country With the prevalence of all kinds of bullying in schools, programs such as the one at Clarendon could be an excellent way to help combat this problem.
Cameron is a young boy who is on the autism spectrum. What started out as a volunteer activity at school for my sister has turned into such a cool friendship that, I think, ought to be emulated by young school children across the country.
Clarendon Elementary School is a grammar school that consists of grades Pre-K to 6th. Located in Secaucus, NJ, Clarendon has a special needs program for children in those specific grades. The Principal of Clarendon Elementary
School, Steven Viggiani, says, “It is our goal for all students to feel and to be included in all aspects of school and the greater community.” Gianna and other students help to facilitate this by performing simple acts of kindness, accepting additional responsibilities and treating all students with respect. At Clarendon Elementary School, students with disabilities are assigned to separate classrooms to ensure that they are provided proper attention. Special needs are met through resource room and basic skills in grades K- 5 at the elementary school level. The latter includes in-class work in grades K-2, a pullout program in grades 3 to 5, and a variety of contributions in grades 2 to 5.
The Special Education Program is what differentiates Clarendon Elementary School from the others in the district. As with other schools, Clarendon provides a wide variety of services to meet personal and individual requirements of each student in the program. What makes this Special Education Program so unique and exceptional are the teachers, faculty and staff. Caring is one of the vital characteristics that each teacher showers students who have special needs. The teachers also are fully devoted in making each students’ experience in school like no other, both academically and socially.
Many 12-year-old 6th grade students’ concerns consist of Friday night football games and what period gym is. My sister Gianna’s priorities are a bit different, one could say, advanced compared to her peers. Gianna voluntarily gave up her 45-minute lunch period to spend time and play games with children with special needs. She spent five days a week throughout the school year, hanging out with, being a mentor for, and above all, showing love for these great kids. Lunchtime between Gianna and her classmates was not the same as lunch between herself and Cameron, along with the other students in the pullout program. Gianna took a parental role for this 45-minute period and got to step into the life of a child with disabilities’ parent for a short period of time. In the beginning of the period, she helped the kids set up for lunch. Gianna also assisted them with simple motor skills such as using a fork and putting a straw in a juice box. She helped her peers complete simple tasks, like writing their names, and helped them clean up their lunch. During recess, she played tag with them at the park.
A PROMOTION CEREMONY TO REMEMBER
Clarendon Elementary School’s 6th grade promotion ceremony is a rather large ritual for a small assembly of kids. This may have seemed like a short hour involving young women and men receiving their elementary school diplomas– but it also became an hour to be remembered for a lifetime for Cameron. It was just as memorable for Gianna, who was fortunate enough to guide Cameron through this experience. Gianna interacted with Cameron on stage, helping to keep him calm and collected. Her reassurances helped keep his actions and words appropriately dignified for the ceremonies. Pamela Teal Mazurkiewicz, Cameron’s mother, said, “She [Gianna] was very gentle and supportive. Cameron was very happy and felt confident to have her. Gianna made Cameron feel included in all aspects of school. In the halls, gym class and even at outside events in the town, Cameron calls her his friend.”
Gianna’s speech at the graduation made me so proud. Some of the words of wisdom from this young lady:
“Individually we take tests, and do things independently but we cannot deny the consistent support and importance of the people around us. Friends, parents, teachers, administrators and even the lunch ladies and bus drivers all had an impact on our experience here at Clarendon. Behind each graduate here are numerous people providing support in several ways. We, as a class have learned many important lessons in life from the surrounding people that goes beyond the textbooks…
We stepped into this school as children, and now we are leaving as young adults. We shall all measure the experience in elementary school by the bonds we have created and the memories we generated. I would like to end this speech with a quote by Steve Jobs, ‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.’ Congratulations and thank you to all my fellow graduates of the class of 2015!”
The day after graduation, Gianna answered the door to a special visitor. The visitor was Michael Gonnelli, the Secaucus Mayor. Mayor Gonnelli gave Gianna a card and a small gift to show his gratitude towards her thoughtfulness towards Cameron. Mayor Gonnelli said, “I was at the graduation last night, and was touched by your kindness and compassion toward Cameron. You are a wonderful young lady and with your kind spirit I believe you will go far in life.”
Not only did Gianna become a friend and companion to Cameron, but she lived experiences with him day in and day out. This 12-year-old young woman learned characteristics such as patience and attentiveness. Having patience is of supreme importance in working with children with disabilities. Gianna also stepped into the shoes of being a parent of a child with disabilities. This is a challenging and life-changing position, yet rewarding in so different way. Gianna was educated with different lessons, working with her fellow peers, throughout the school year. She learned to adapt, improvise and overcome challenges, regardless of the events that may occur. Meltdowns, disruptions and breakdowns of the children made her realize that you have to be prepared for the unexpected. Gianna was not only an assistant to help the kids control their emotions, but she was looked up to as a role model, a big responsibility for anyone, especially a child of twelve. Principal Steve Viggiani says, “I am extremely proud of both Cameron and Gianna, for what they have accomplished and for what they bring to our community; from overcoming challenges to understanding that we all may need a little help to reach our goals. My time in education has taught me that we can learn a lot from our students. Cameron and Gianna are perfect examples of this lesson.”
Gianna learned different coping methods and techniques. She was taught the crucial skill of how to solve kids’ problems through observing their behavior. Gianna observed how frustrating it could be to work with children with disabilities, but with the right personality, sensitivity, attitude and approach, it made the work so much easier to accomplish. She truly valued the unique characteristics and traits of each student she was involved in. Most important of all, she presented constant love for children.
As the song goes, “Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative.” Being optimistic not only put a smile on the students faces, but it also did wonders in boosting their self-esteem. Gianna’s dedication in working with the students made her bond with each and every one of the students stronger. Learning their strengths and weaknesses helped Gianna to understand what motivates them. For someone as young as Gianna to understand this is something I am extremely proud of. She has taught me much about the necessity of developing empathy, something I will treasure always as I embark on my own college career next year.
Caring, compassion, commitment, sensitivity are all words that come to mind in this story. But they are more than just words. They describe a young lady with wisdom beyond her years and an understanding that it is important always to look at the person first and the disability a distant second, and to always focus on what a person can do, not what he or she cannot. Yes, Mother Teresa was right in saying, “We cannot do great things; we can only do small things with great love.”
Gianna and Cameron are just one of many reasons why I want very much to pursue a career in medicine and become a physician, perhaps an anesthesiologist. Gianna is a motivation for me to work hard, practice, and persevere so that one day I might be able to help others, just like she continues to do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Julia Peschetti is a 17-year-old senior who attends Secaucus High School in Secaucus, NJ. Julia has three sisters, one of them being Gianna, along with two others Jenna and Daniela. In fall 2016, Julia will be playing soccer and majoring in Chemistry at The Pennsylvania State University. In the future, Julia looks forward to attending medical school and become a physician, such as an anesthesiologist.