On this Valentine’s day, MobileArq would like to share with all of you, the story of an Exceptional Mom who has transformed exceptional children !
In my son’s third grade class, his best friend, Adam, got teased and bullied by the rest of his classmates during a recess. The bullied child was severely traumatized due to this incident. The third grade class was unaware that the different behavioral traits Adam displayed at times were due to his Asperger’s Syndrome (or high functioning autism) diagnosis. Once the Principal sat down with the rest of the class separately and explained why their classmate was different from them, many of them understood and empathized with the child. This is a typical situation that could have been prevented and pre-empted with education about children with disabilities.
The statistics of children in the US with developmental disabilities is staggering, one in six children has a developmental disability. That would be more than 15% of kids going to K-12 schools or 10 million children. Which implies that in a typical elementary classroom there are three or four children with developmental disabilities. How do the rest of the children in the class and school relate to these children?
Melinda Jennis, Founder of Pathways for Exceptional Children has pioneered the cause of educating children in schools about the children with special needs. Pathways not only empowers children by creating mentoring programs for older children but also allows them to teach younger children to understand, empathize and include children with disabilities into their lives. Niru Mallavarupu, Co-Founder of MobileArq, interviewed Melinda Jennis to learn more about her creative and supportive program.
MobileArq: How did you come up with the idea of providing the ‘sensitivity training’ for children with learning disabilities?
Melinda Jennis: I got the idea about “children teaching children” model from my son, Jacob. My daughter was leaving for a play-date one day and as she walked out the door, Jacob began to cry inconsolably. He had lived very much in a work of his own so I did not realize he understood being social at all. It took him about 15 minutes to tell me what was wrong, and he said, “Nobody wants Jakie.” I realized for the first time how much he wanted to be included and wanted to be a part of the world. I started the mentor program and began training children in order to bring about an awareness of children with special needs and the value I believed they could add to each other. We started the mentor or sensitivity training 12 years ago and over time it has evolved into a very interactive training that gets children to problem solve and alleviates their fears about working with people with disabilities. I also wanted to get children to see we could so much more than just accept and tolerate each other. I have always taught them that inclusion empowers people and I think that has been the outcome the mentor program has had.
MobileArq: Can you tell us what are the effects that you have seen due to your programs in kids with disabilities?
Melinda Jennis: The best way to describe the outcome is to look at the video of my son on our website, www.PathwaysKids.org. It is on the home age. He now plays football with the Montville Township High School (MTHS) JV team. He has played in a few varsity games. He did not require an aide and walk on the field in uniform ready to play. The kids came right over and he played along side them as team. He has been out of district most of his life and told me a few months ago he wanted to come back home to be with his friends. He just started back at MTHS this week and if you walk down the hall with him everybody talks to him and loves him. He now has more friends than most people. Those kids do not help him because they feel sorry for him either, but because the truly loved being with him. After 12 years of about 80-100 hours a week of work, we are seeing a real cultural change that is I think is here to last.
MobileArq: What does Jacob do now that he could not have done before?
Melinda Jennis: Jacob is also in an inclusive rock band and sings all over NJ with the band. The kids got to play with the Jonas Brothers this last summer at the PNC. None of them could have done it on their own but together they helped each other. I think inclusion is empowering and I have found in my own life it has accomplished a world of good every we go! The more inclusive we become, the more we are included!
MobileArq: How many children got educated through your programs?
Melinda Jennis: Pathways runs over 40 programs a year for children of all abilities. We service about 300 children with special needs and 500 mentors in my home town of Montville, NJ. We have trained a little over 16,000 children in New Jersey and have helped 54 communities to start programs in their schools and/ or community activities.
The need for the whole community to be involved in raising our children is universally accepted and practiced. Involvement of the community in helping to raise our exceptional children is just as important and necessary for both the child and the community. Melinda Jennis and her army of mentors are educating children in elementary and middle schools about children with special needs. By becoming better aware of the challenges faced by those with special needs, children will be able to develop the ‘mindset’ to be inclusive of our exceptional children. The mentorship training is in essence helping all our children and thus building a better community.
Monique McHenry, a PTA Mom leader, is one of the inspired and inspiring mentors who has adapted the “Mentor Training” program created by the Pathways for teaching students at the Elementary and Middle Schools in Basking Ridge, NJ.¬† Through the “Sensitivity Training” taught to the students ‘every school year almost 1000 students learn how to be a friend to someone with special needs’
Communities and schools interested in providing an enriching learning environment for all kids under their care can learn more about Pathways for Exceptional Children founded by Melinda Jennis through the website www.pathwayskids.org