A Special Classroom: Sea World Includes Us in their World


by Dawn Menge, PhD

 

Dawn 1.jpg

Joshua helped me draw a huge thermometer onto the poster board. “Can we go outside today and collect recyclables so that we can fill in the thermometer to the top?” Our students with severe cognitive delays had a small business making Christmas trees and recycling on campus. They had voted to use their money to take a trip to Sea World in San Diego and swim with the dolphins. This project began during the last school year and was continuing into the New Year.

Mid-year we ran into a small glitch that turned into a huge issue. A person who wanted to start a recycling program wrote negative articles about our students recycling. This issue accelerated with my parents accompanying us to attend a school board meeting. The school board offered to give our students the money for the trip, but the parents and I were adamant that they had a right to feel pride in their accomplishments and earn their way to Sea World. We were allowed to continue our work and the thermometer was soon filled.

At that time, in addition to my classroom responsibilities, I was home schooling Stephanie, who suffered from a temporary paralysis due to an illness. I visited her home each week and we invited her and her little sister to join us. “Ms. Dawn, I’m going to work very hard to get strong enough to go with you,” she said. Because of her weakened state, she had to work especially hard to build up her strength and stamina to attend with us. But, she was determined to fight and accompany her classmates on this adventure and have an experience of a lifetime with her family. Each week, we would talk about her physical therapy and occupational exercises to see if she was gaining enough strength to come. At times, there were setbacks. “I was sick this week Ms. Dawn. I didn’t get to work with my teachers,” she would say. “I’m very proud of all your hard work and I know you will make it for our trip.” I’d encourage her each week, although I wasn’t really sure if it would be possible for her.

The exciting day arrived and we boarded the bus early in the morning for the three-hour drive to Sea World. The park had generously offered to allow the parents to attend for free with their children. The Sea World employees escorted us back to the Dolphin encounter area and handed each one of us a wet suit to wear. Managing to put these on was an adventure in itself. But, we all managed this feat in the end and put our water shoes on and walked outside to the pool. The dolphins were jumping and swimming around in anticipation of their trainers’ commands.

We split up into groups based on student needs. The higher-functioning students who were physically stronger were grouped in a larger area with several teachers and parents. My brand new administrator was in this group being christened as my boss in a very adventuresome way. We all lined up and the first dolphin swam up and landed on the ledge. “She feels soft,” Giggled Ashley, as she ran her hands along the stomach of the dolphin. “Look how fast they can swim and jump in the air. I wish I could do that,” laughed Jasmine as she pointed to Samantha the dolphin.

Dawn 2.jpg

Ms. Judy was holding onto Amanda’s wetsuit as she petted the dolphin. Little Amanda was visually impaired with a seizure disorder and very determined to interact with the dolphins. She was so excited she held onto the dolphin’s fin and she tried to swim away.

“Come and shake the dolphins’ fins Freddie,” the trainer asked our youngest student with Down syndrome. The trainer held onto his shoulders as Freddie held the dolphin’s fins. They turned around and the dolphin gave him a big kiss and in turn Freddie hugged the dolphin so tight he almost didn’t let go. I’d never seen him with such a great big smile on his face. We all gathered ourselves sadly together and headed back to the changing rooms. It was filled with excited voices of students and parents alike trying to peel the wetsuits off and enjoy the rest of their day at Sea World.

Our last group included our school nurse Melinda for Stephanie as her physical health was still very fragile. The staff at Sea World helper her mother take Cindy out of the wheelchair and place her in the hoist to be lowered into the pool. Stephanie and Brianna were beyond excited. Stephanie leaned over and gave the dolphin a kiss as he swam by her. “Oh, my goodness there were tears in my eyes, she was so excited when she touched the dolphin,” remembers Melinda. “I will never forget that experience. It was so awesome.” Their dolphin swam up and perched on the ledge so that they could feel her sleek body, shaking her head as her trainer pointed for her to swim around the pool and jump high into the air twisting as she came back down, a big splash landing on the girls. The complete joy in their faces was more than enough reward for our staff. The memories of the hard work and struggle we had endured to make this happen washed away and was replaced by these irreplaceable memories for these students with severe cognitive delays and their families.

In our small groups, we continued to enjoy the Sea World park watching the shows, feeding the animals, learning about our world’s oceans and how important it is to protect our environment. Our recycling program not only helped our students accomplish this incredible goal on their own, but also helped the environment. As part of our functional curriculum, our students learn life skills such as counting and budgeting, communication skills in ordering their own meals and then paying the employees for their meals. “I was so impressed at the way the students were able to go to the cafeteria at Sea World. They were able to order their own food, figure out if they had enough money and pay on their own,” recalls Melinda. A lifetime of educational benefits came from this experience. All too soon, it was time to pack up and get on the bus for our long drive back home. The day may have been over but the memories and experiences gained would last a lifetime.  



Dawn Menge, PhD has won 29 national awards as the author of the Queen Vernita's Educational Series. As an educator, she holds a Master's and a Clear Credential in moderate/severe disabilities and a Bachelor's in human development. Dr. Menge has been teaching severely handicapped students for 16 years.

Riding Horses at the Deuker Ranch

by Marie A. Fasano

1.The Girls Club riding around the drums.jpg

The Deuker Ranch Equine Assisted Adaptive Riding program is located in Star Valley, Arizona, about 10 minutes from Payson. They teach riding and horsemanship skills with a focus on participants who are challenged physically, cognitively, or socially. Their instructors and volunteers work with youngsters to safely develop independent skills and confidence from horses.­

“I’m really riding!” beamed Charley as she sat astride Autumn, the 850-pound Halfinger. This was her first time riding around the paddock. Dennis, the owner and instructor, walked beside them, quietly giving Charley directions. Prior to this, the little, 9-year-old was petrified to go near a horse. Autumn stands over six feet tall at the shoulders. Her strong, sturdy build provides a safe and stable ride for the children.

“Charley, you are doing so well, tomorrow you can ride big Rex,” Dennis said. He is a Belgian draft horse who weighs in at over 2,000 pounds and over six feet tall at the shoulders, but a gentle as they come.

Although there are several Equine Assisted programs in Arizona, the rural Dueker Ranch, run by husband and wife team, Dennis and Kathy Dueker never charge a fee. It is a 501c3 charitable organization. The ranch began in 2015 after Dennis experienced the power of horses changing lives. Kathy has spent a lifetime around horses, even having worked at Disneyland in California taking care of the draft horses that pull the street cars on Main Street, USA.

2.Becky mounting Autumn with with the help of Dennis and Kathy.jpg

I remember the first time we went to Deuker Ranch and how my niece, Charley cowered as we got near the horses. Kathy gently took her hand and said, “Charley, I have to feed all the horses and I need help, want to come with me?” By the end of the afternoon, Charley was feeding the horses out of her hand. Kathy is as gentle with the horses as she was with Charley.

This is what happens every week at Deuker Ranch with Kathy and Dennis and their volunteers. This Equine Therapeutic riding program is a treatment strategy that in­cludes equine activities or an equine environment. Through the miracles of horses, riders can overcome barriers through the unique power of love and friend­ship with the gentle giants or miniature horses. Their trained volunteers do several tasks. They can be sidewalker/coaches, horse leaders, barn hands, facility maintenance workers, or complete grooming and tacking. They enjoy being around horses.

Research, and the Deukers’ own experience, shows the benefits of therapeutic riding for the participant may include increased strength, flexibility, improved balance and coordination, improved coping and social skills (reduced stress and hyperactivity) and increased quality and quantity of communication.

3.Jacqueline on Ruby with Mat, a volunteer.jpg

The equine movement engages the sensory, neuromotor, language and cognitive systems that support functional daily living skills. Each participant needs a medical release before they are able to ride. The rider always has a volunteer walker next to them while they are on the horse for support, encouragement, and safety.

“I have seen children that were nonverbal speak their first words while sitting on a horse. I have helped children in wheelchairs feel freedom for the first time on the back of a horse. I have taught autistic children to focus and follow directions while riding.” said Dennis.

I spent an afternoon at the Deuker Ranch observing Dennis and Kathy following PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) guidelines working with three teens diagnosed as developmentally challenged, on horseback, each with a volunteer at their side. Adriana, Becky, and Jacqueline come for their riding lessons on Thursdays and call themselves “The Girls Club.”

“I’ll do anything to be around horses,” Adriana said. “It’s stress free, no drama.” Smiling as she mounted Merrigold, a pony breed, 14 hands with stout muscles and strong bones.

4.Adriana on Merrigold with Dennis.jpg

Becky had a big smile when Mat, the volunteer walking by the side of her horse said, “You’re directing Autumn really well today.”

“The horses make the girls feel alive,” says Susan, Becky’s mother. “She is shy, but around the horses she talks more.

When the girls were asked if they have a special horse, Jacqueline quickly responded, “We like them all. We mix it up and ride different ones.”

Jacqueline agreed to write a poem about her experiences at Deuker ranch.

      

Riding Horses

Riding a horse makes me relax.
Riding horses makes me brave and strong.
Riding is fun to do.
Riding is fast sometimes.

 

The in-depth following of directions has helped Jacqueline achieve gold medals in Special Olympic events. “I see more confidence and assertiveness in her, since she began riding here,” says her mom, Lucy.

Today Jacqueline is riding Ruby, who is over 1,800 pounds. These are work horses. Ruby and Rex, two Belgian Draft horses worked side by side pulling a tourist wagon around Yosemite National Park.

“They like to work,” says Kathy. “The Drafts are not so excitable. They are people friendly.” Kathy is the one at the Deuker Ranch who makes sure the horses are trained. 

The classes progress each week from getting up on a horse, handling the reins, balance, and various exercises.

The exercise on this day was balancing on the horse while drawing. Dennis asked each rider to pick a fun drawing that is on a clipboard. The teens are laughing a lot and look again and again at the papers trying to decide. Once they make their decision they move around the paddock directing the horses around the large round drums. They are very good at riding the horses around the drums as they have done it many times.

As they are riding, they get to pick crayons of their color choice that are on the drums. This takes thinking about choices. The volunteer working with each girl hands them their chosen crayons. Once they have gone around all the drums and selected their colors, they must stop the horse, and balance while drawing.

After stopping the horse with a “Whoa,” then holding the horse quietly, the girls start coloring. It’s a lesson in balancing and keeping the stopped horses in control so they can color.

Once they have completed the task, they continue riding. It was a pleasure to observe the teens exercising with the horses, practicing balance and having fun at the same time.

5.Boys grooming Gracie, a miniature horse at Payson Community Kids.jpg

What about the horses? Children and adults alike fall in love with the herd. At the Deuker Ranch there are three miniature horses, Willow, her daughter Gracie and Kenny. Their small size makes them the perfect horse to meet with small children and those in wheelchairs.

Dennis and Kathy bring the miniature horses to programs and events so children can experience being around horses. One day, at the Payson Community Kids program, the children learn about being around horses by gently brushing them while a volunteer holds the reins. You can sense their calmness while they complete this repetitive task.

Recently, the Ranch acquired Hamish, a Clydesdale colt, its newest addition. Hamish, like their other draft horses, “has an instinct that they want to work and they want to help.” said Dennis. The other “gentle Clydesdale giants” at the Deuker Ranch are the ambassadors often  and used for the Veterans program.

“What makes us different is that our services are free! That’s how important we feel therapeutic riding is,” said Dennis. 

Dueker ranch is a nonprofit Corporation and a 501(c3) Arizona-qualified dollar for dollar tax credit charity.

 

For more information, contact the Deukers at 928-978-7039, DuekerRanch@gmail.com, or visit duekerranchhorsetherapy.com.





A Special Classroom: Visits


Dawn 2.jpg

by Dr. Dawn Menge

“Help Queen Vernita with our days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.” I encouraged the preschool students with Autism as I read to nine different preschool classes. Each class has a population with ages ranging from 3-6 year old and the students’ abilities range from non-verbal to verbal communicatively. “During the Sundays in January, Queen Vernita and her friend Debbie stayed home and read three books. Do you like to read? “Yes,” chimed in several of the students while others nodded their head or attempted to grab the book.

“In February, Queen Vernita and her friend Tommie had a huge snowball fight and made beautiful snow angels.” It has been a highly unusual winter in Southern California with rain and snow for weeks. “Did you get to make a snowman or have a snowball fight?” I asked the little ones, as I imitated throwing a snowball in the air. “The class of nine preschoolers all attempted to throw their own imaginary snowballs through the air. “On Sundays, they lay by the fireplace and took long naps, snoring loudly! Do you guys snore when you sleep?” The room was filled with nine little children snoring loudly and laughing.

“In July, Ashlie and Queen Vernita spent 31 glorious days at the beach. What is she doing in the picture? “Several of the students got up out of their chairs and pointed to the illustration of Queen Vernita and Ashlie building a sandcastle while the verbal students excitedly started reliving their experiences at the beach. “I played in the ocean, but I didn’t like the feel of the sand.” A little boy told me as he rubbed his hands together. Many students with Autism have sensory needs, as textures bother them. This little boy was sensitive to the feel of sand, while others are more sensitive to smells or visuals such as the lights in a classroom. Many of our students cannot tolerate loud or noisy areas and wear sound reduction head phones to limit the input coming to them from outside their worlds. “Queen Vernita ate fried fish tacos on Fridays. Who likes fish tacos?” Most of the students wrinkled their noses but a very verbal little boy informed me, “I go to Hawaii every summer and play in the waves and make sandcastles, but we do not eat fish tacos. That is yucky!” as he turned his head back and forth in an obvious sign of distaste.

Dawn 1.jpg

“Then came August and Hannah came to visit. It is a very hot time in the land of Oceaneers. Queen Vernita and Hannah spent all 31 days camping in the mountains. On Wednesdays, they slept outside of their tents so they could count all the stars. Can you help me count the stars?” A little girl jumped onto my lap and grabbed my hand as I pointed and began to count the stars. Those little ones that could count joined in on star counting, fading away as we reached past the number ten. “How many frogs are there? One, two…,” as I held up each finger the students followed along. “Saturday nights they made a campfire and cooked S’mores. They were so gooey and yummy, made of marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate. “Have you ever had a S’more?” I asked as I rubbed my stomach, “I like the melted marshmallows, and I like the chocolate.”

“As the season of summer left, fall came. Along with the changing of the leaves colors, came Virginia. September is apple picking time. Do you like apples?” Apples, repeated a little girl that had been silent up to this point. Echolalic speech is frequent with people who have autism. They will repeat specific words or phrases. The more verbal students who are echolalic come to school and repeat phrases they’ve heard on movies or TV. They also repeat out of context, prior conversations they have had at home or in the community. Their speech is halted short, sometimes limited to a word or two to convey their message to the listener.

Dawn 3.jpg

“Tyler Ann stayed until the end of the year. I’m so glad that I have 12 such great friends to come and visit me on each of the 12 months of the year. Thank you so much for allowing me to come and read Queen Vernita’s Visitors to each and every one of you.” I thanked my last group and headed back to my classroom of high school and transition students who are have moderate to severe disabilities. It is always such fun to read to the little ones at the educational center in which the preschoolers who have Autism attend school. Their teachers all refer to them as their friends, creating a warm and friendly environment for children who have high anxiety in social situations. But, after reading to 90 friends in nine different classrooms, my voice is tired and I’m ready to rest until the next year.


Dawn Menge, PhD has won 29 national awards as the author of the Queen Vernita's Educational Series. As an educator, she holds a Master's and a Clear Credential in moderate/severe disabilities and a Bachelor's in human development. Dr. Menge has been teaching severely handicapped students for 16 years.

    

Cartoonist Across America Creates Art Ability in the Classroom


by Dr. Dawn Menge

Phil 3.jpg

Phil Yeh founded Cartoonists Across America in 1985 to increase literacy across the country. He has painted more than 1,800 murals in 49 U.S. States and more than a dozen countries. Phil’s goal is to create and encourage literacy through the Arts. "I am pleased that the Cartoonists Across America Tour has been formed, because I agree that literacy has become a problem in our country. Humor itself is always a valuable tool in providing incentive for reading.” - Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts.

The recent snow storms in Southern California postponed our much-anticipated visit from Phil Yeh. He was going to bring his talents to our classroom to create a mural with the students who have severe cognitive delays in our classes. Finally, he was able to brave the weather and he and his wife Linda came to spend the day with our students.

Phil 2.jpg

Paint, brushes, and comic books were all unpacked and Phil soon began to freehand the mural for us to paint. Right before our eyes he created mountains, the sun, Joshua Trees, and many animal characters for our students to paint in. Highlighted across he wrote, “Building a World of Readers, Artists and Dreamers.” The first of the students came to choose their colors to paint. Their varied cognitive and physical delays were pushed aside and soon forgotten as they excitedly picked up their paint brushes and paint and began to fill in the mural. Each student took their turn in adding their personal touches to our mural. Soon, there was a bright yellow sun with deep red lips painted by our beautiful young student who despite being deaf, uses her assertive nature to command and direct others. Our young man with Cerebral Palsy in his electric wheelchair spent an hour painting the Joshua Trees. He was so intent on getting it right and staying within the lines, carefully dipping his paint brush in the green and then raising his arm to apply the color.  

The hours passed quickly as more than 30 students whose abilities included Autism, Down syndrome, visual and hearing Impairments, and intellectual disabilities, took turns adding their loving touch to the mural. The occupational therapists, speech therapists, education specialists and educational assistants all joined in to add color and flare to the community board. The students used their creative imaginations and formed a river flowing at the bottom of the mountains. Animals were given varying color schemes, none looking the same as different students tackled different areas. Birds flying across the mountains sported colors in yellow, red, blue, and brown. The mountains were orange, yellow, and blue. A young man in an electric wheelchair painted the rabbit with a red face and a purple suit.

Phil 1.jpg

Phil Yeh spent the morning helping and encouraging the students and explained his philosophies and experiences about using the Arts to expand and increase the use of combining art and literacy to build stronger communities. “Our belief is that without the presence of creative expression, the ability of students and adults to learn and pursue any subject becomes stifled, uninspired and robotic,” he says.

Phil’s graphic novel, Dinosaurs Across America, teaches U.S. Geography while entertaining students and adults with the vividly illustrated pages. As Phil painted over the black lines on the mural the paint brushes were washed, and the paint put away. The mural will be showcased in a local art show to appreciate artwork developed by individuals with disabilities. A fitting end, to a unique and amazing opportunity given to our students, on this rainy, wintery day. We are all responsible and influence Phil’s dream to create literacy through the arts and to help him accomplish his goal of “Building a World of Readers, Artists and Dreamers” in homes, classrooms, libraries, and community centers throughout the country.

Author Spotlight: Tara McCarton

Tara McCarton.jpg

Today's author spotlight is Tara McCarton, who has written a heartwarming book about kindness and inclusion, inspired by her daughter's Christmas wish that one day, her sister would be able to speak to her.

Where did you grow up?
Brooklyn, NY

Did you read a lot as a child?
I did, and even today, once I get into a book, I could stay up all night reading it.

What were some of your favorite authors and books?
When I was younger, I loved all the Nancy Drew mystery books and now my favorite author is Nelson DeMille, and Plum Island is my favorite book.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was good in math, so I went into finance, but everyone always told me I should write a book. Sometimes things in your life take you down a different path and you do what you were meant to do and find a different passion.

Tell us about some of the jobs you’ve had before you became a writer.
I was a lifeguard in high school and college then went into finance and worked at some of the biggest investment banks in the world. I also became an ongoing service coordinator for the Early Intervention program here in NY.

How did you get started writing?
I was inspired by my 3-year-old’s Christmas wish for her nonverbal sister to talk. I thought it was the sweetest wish and inspired me to write a book about having a disability but from a child's point of view in a lighthearted way.

Why do you write books?
I want to inspire children to be kind and include others that may be different than they are, and to know you can do anything you put your mind to, just like the illustrator of my book, who has autism.

What do you like best about writing?
Sending a positive message into the world and seeing the reactions of the kids when they read my book. It sparks a conversation that they may not have started before.

What do you find the most challenging about writing?
Finding the time to organize all my ideas in my head and getting them out on paper.

What makes a good story?
A good story is something that inspires you and teaches a message.

Where do you get your inspiration?
My inspiration for this book is from my daughters. Having a daughter with special needs teaches you to slow down and appreciate all the little things around you. When I watch my daughters interact, and seeing how typical kids act around Audrey inspired me to teach the world about finding the “ability” in disability.

The Wish.jpg

Tell us about your latest book.
My book, The Wish, is a sweet story about two fairies—one who speaks and one who doesn't. The younger fairy's wish is for her friend to talk. It teaches love and kindness and to slow down and appreciate the differences in all of us.

What’s next for you?
I hope to write a second book. I already have some suggestions from my nephews and classes I have spoken to. I would love for this book to be in schools around the world and read to children at night.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about you and your books?
Yes, my illustrator has Autism. She is from the church we go to and when I attended her birthday party, I saw pictures of fairies on her wall. I asked her if she drew them and she did. I thought they reflected the ideas in my head perfectly of what the fairies would look like in my book. I wanted to give her a chance, too and show that even if you have a disability, you can do anything you set your mind to. When I read in schools, the children are fascinated that the pictures look like they are drawn with markers and they said they knew they could make a book, too! It is so great to see these kids drawing pictures and making books in the classroom. That is what inspires me as well!

For more information on Tara McCarton and her book, visit www.audreymccarton.com.