I have often been asked how and why I got involved enough to run for school board. I want to tell you about one of my inspirations, my niece Julia.
My sister adopted 4 year old twins Max and Julia from The Ukraine in 2001. Because of them, I truly saw another side of public education, from the eyes of children who were struggling and not prepared at all with either academic or social skills. Their struggle inspired me…..and still does. So let me tell you about Julia’s gift (and Max’s too)
Julia and Max turned 4 on their “gotcha” day. In the world in international adoption, gotcha day is like a new birthday. But for my niece and nephew it is the same day. My sister was a single woman, a corporate trainer for a Fortune 500 company, who wanted to be a mom and realized that God had already put her children here on earth waiting for her to come and Gotcha them.
In the weeks, months and years that followed, my sister Tanya, mom and I all learned about SID (sensory integration dysfunction), learning disabilities and all the manifestations of being raised in an orphanage in the third world country. The twins behavior and developmental delays were predictable for “orphanage babies” but my sister didn’t let that become an excuse. What seemed to happen naturally to my kids and others was completely foreign to the twins….like holding a pencil, cutting with scissors and playing with others. You see they had to protect themselves every day, guard their food and had not experienced any “preschool” type activities in their orphanage. They also had not been held or nurtured much as infants.
When Kindergarten began,The twins struggled so greatly that after a few weeks, Tanya and I had a meeting at the school….the twins were having melt downs by midmorning and things were at rock bottom. A specific incident occurred with Julia that we later learned is typical orphanage defensive behavior but it got her suspended and led us to the “meeting”.
The comment that has resonated through me since that meeting came from one of the teachers in the room. She commented, “I just don’t know how to teach a child that is so far behind!” In other words, Julia wasn’t a preschool trained typical suburban child and this teacher wasn’t prepared for a student like her in her class. The end result that day was that I would pick the twins up at 10am, after they had the EC work, therapy and a little classroom time and basically I would home school them the rest of the day. And as they became more comfortable we would extend their day. Tanya bought me materials and supplies and I set things up like a small preschool and we started at the beginning….holding pencils, learning how to use scissors, and moved into counting activities and early reading. We sang songs, baked cookies, made art, sorted hot wheel cars by color and searched the house for shapes. I watched them progress daily and before long we had another meeting to discuss extending their time at school.
Tanya and I had collected a portfolio of the twins work at home, including bracelets with chenille sticks and pony beads in different patterns. We brought one for each of the staff present that day. When we handed a bracelet to the teacher who “didn’t know how to teach Julia”, she had a stunned look. I believe my crusade to make sure that every child is given a chance at a great education was crystallized at that moment.
Fast forward a decade…… the twins still struggle but they are also succeeding. EOG’s are a horrible week for them every year, standardized testing remains an obstacle. Certain subjects are still a big challenge. But they have also made honor roll and when they apply themselves, things work out pretty well. Tanya continues to be their advocate and make sure they get extra tutoring and she pays for them to go to private tutoring still. She has kept their world very structured and orderly and is an amazing engaged mom. I have taken on the role of the silly Aunt and for their 15th birthday last summer I took them on a weekend camping trip to the Brevard area. We hiked, tubed down a river, sang “wagon wheel” around a campfire and ate ice cream twice a day. I cherish moments like those, especially when I reflect back on how far we have all come as a family.
This year for Christmas, the whole family gathered at Nana’s house and exchanged presents and laughter and even a few tears. This year, Julia was very circumspect and talked a lot about how much we all meant to her. She had also told Tanya that she was very grateful to have her family, because if she had not been adopted and come to be a part of her “gotcha” family she would have been put out of the orphanage and be living on the streets at 15 in The Ukraine.(she has studied her native country for school projects and learned a lot about how she came to be a Carolina Girl). Julia had carefully made and picked out gifts for everyone. Then she typed up a note for each person and expressed why she loved them and why they were special to her. She talked of Amanda’s art, Maddie’s smile and Mason’s silliness. And on mine she told me how much fun I am to be around and she could not ask for a better aunt in the world. My Christmas gift from her that morning was placements that say “Love, Live, Laugh”, but the true gift was in the notes she carefully typed for each of us. To realize where she started and how she has become a young woman with such a gracious heart and caring soul….a gift more precious than I can describe.
Its unfathomable to me that a teacher all those years ago thought Julia was “unteachable” had no idea how to deal with her and her delays. I guess she did not understand the power of a mothers love and dedication to the children God placed in her life or the strength that comes when a family unites to help their children succeed. My greatest sadness is that so many other children are like Max and Julia…..unprepared for school, developmentally behind, lacking social skills. And if they are placed in classrooms with teachers who don’t “get” them or care enough to try and don’t have a parent/parents or family to support them how will they ever succeed? Its a daunting task, but one we must rise to meet.
Julia’s true gift to me is her ability to inspire me …..she first gave me that inspiration over a decade ago and she continues giving it to me now. Thank you Julia, for your gift!