GLASGOW – Elizabeth Nolan stood in front of the sixth, seventh and eighth grades recently at Christ the Teacher School and told the students about her life.
She told the students her life had been very much like theirs. She ran cross country for St. Mary Magdalen, and she “had a lot of timeouts” for pulling people’s hair when she was younger. She now rides in cycling events and hopes to be able to finish a 15K event this year.
“My coaches always tell me to raise the bar,” she said.
Nolan works at Christiana Care, where she does clerical tasks and greets representatives of drug companies, her favorite part of the job.
“We are more alike than different. I have Down syndrome, and it’s OK. It’s part of who I am, but it does not define me,” Nolan said.
Nolan and her mother, Mary Ann, visited Christ the Teacher at the invitation of the Diversity Club, which works to raise awareness of people with physical and intellectual differences. The club, now in its third year, has grown so popular that membership is restricted to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who are nominated by their teachers.
Eighth-grade teacher Erin McNesby, who started the club with current eighth-grade student Jordan Jones, said more than 100 students would be involved if they could take everyone who expressed interest.
McNesby often brings up her uncle, Michael McNesby, in her classroom discussions about how to respect people with differences. Michael McNesby has Down syndrome. After a school assembly on the topic two years ago, Jones and her mother asked Erin McNesby, then teaching sixth grade, if they could start a chapter of Spread the Word to End the Word at Christ the Teacher. Spread the Word works to end the use of derogatory terms when referring to the developmentally disabled.
According to McNesby, Christ the Teacher was the first elementary school in the country to take part in this campaign.
“Jordan came to me and said, ‘I kind of want to keep this going throughout the year,’ so that’s when I pulled together a group of seventh- and eighth-graders. There were a total of eight of them,” McNesby said.
Since then, the club has been busy spreading the word.
“We had word-of-the-day posters that were said at morning prayer, t-shirts sold for Spread the Word, wristbands that were given out. We did Buddy Walk posters. I really tried to make this a leadership position,” said McNesby, who lets the students run the organization but remains available for guidance and assistance.
The club provides resources to teachers for use in the classroom, such as books and movie clips, which have been adjusted to be age-appropriate for all grade levels.
Jones said she has a cousin with cerebral palsy, and she has been active in fundraising efforts since before she started school. She has done the Polar Bear Plunge since she was 4.
“After I saw how kids had been treated, bullied and stuff like that, I just really wanted to get involved, get our school active in giving people with differences the ability to do things,” she said.
Jonathan Tressler is a seventh-grader who is part of the club. His 11-year-old sister, Hannah, has Down syndrome, and Jonathan spent last June cheering for the participants at the Special Olympics.
“I think it’s unfair to have one person singled out just because they have a difference. I mean, what if you were that one person, would you like it?” he asked.
Some of his friends have met Hannah and are surprised to see how social she is, he said. He has invited his friends to the Buddy Walk, “and then they all really understand what it’s about. It’s not really a difference; they’re the same as you.”
The current eighth-grade class at Christ the Teacher experienced people with differences first-hand. At one point, they had two children with Down syndrome, including the daughter of current third-grade teacher Jeanne Jerzak, in their class. Eighth-grade student Megan Stover said she and her classmates didn’t even realize the students had a disability because they were in class with them all the time, becoming friends. She said she couldn’t understand why people would make fun of or laugh at others because of who they were.
“A lot of kids are very accepting of it, I guess since in the Catholic faith we learn to accept everyone like Jesus accepted everyone.
“No one here is really mean to anyone,” Stover said.
200 million people
Nolan also has a job with Waggies by Maggie & Friends, a Wilmington nonprofit that employs the developmentally disabled to make all-natural dog treats (waggies.org).
“I’m happy being Elizabeth,” she told the students.
Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Ann Nolan, said her daughter and others might need assistance, but they are people and should be treated as such.
Jones told her schoolmates that developmental disabilities affect 200 million people, and help is needed to create a more accepting world.
‘You’re journey to make a change has just begun,” she said.
One way they could do that is to sign the Spread the Word pledge, available at school and also at www.r-word.org. The school will have students sign the pledge at the end of March, McNesby said.
The “r word” – retarded – makes people feel less than human, Jones said. “It hurts, even if you don’t mean it that way.”