As a reporter, you get to meet a lot of interesting people each day - people who strive to make things different, many who make the world a better place. For me, that was very true recently when I met the Cook family. Three-year-old Matthew Cook has been diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome, a condition in ways similar to Autism and one which means Matthew will need extra care and nurturing for the rest of his life. As I sat with this family for a meal and watched their interactions, it struck me most of all how blessed they all felt to have Matthew – he wasn’t a burden or a problem, he was a gift. That’s something sometimes people who don’t have a lot of contact with special needs kids and adults might not understand. I do understand it. My brother was special needs before that moniker was attached to it. Although he appeared “normal,” Steven had a speech impediment and only developed three months for every year of his life. It was a different time then and people with disabilities oftentimes were misunderstood – I think others were even afraid of something they might not understand. But, for me – like the Cook family – my brother was a gift, and even all these years later I believe some of the very best parts of me are because I was given the honor of growing up with him, protecting him and loving him. But, family members are not alone, although sometimes one of the hardest things about loving a special needs person can be isolation. As I was thinking about Matthew’s life to come – and there will be rocky times, just as with anyone’s life – he and his family are so blessed, more than they know. Because they live in Mustang. That’s because Matthew will likely be part of a network of teachers and administrators at Mustang Public Schools who are simply remarkable at what they do and how they do it. Led in no small part by Cherie Miller, teachers like Canyon Ridge Intermediate’s Tiffany Massie, Elizabeth McGaha and Pam Shade work every day to make their students’ lives better. That job is not always easy, not when milestones for these children and youth can look much different than those for other “mainstream” students. But, they prevail – and they’re constantly looking for ways to make these kids not only happy, but also understood. Take the recent Spotlight on STEM camp held at Canyon Ridge. In covering this event, I spoke to several “normal” students who were amazed at how great their special needs counterparts were. These kids had a chance to interact and see that a wheelchair, a speech impediment or other learning disability didn’t take away from the gift that person could be to all who know them. The fact Massie, McGaha and the others worked to make this activity a reality was a gift, as well – not only for their special needs students, but also for those kids who before might have misunderstood what it would be like to spend time with them and get to know them. They broke down a barrier that I wish could have been accomplished for my brother all those years ago. Those teachers aren’t alone – Mustang has a tremendous group of special needs teachers and staff. But, it is Miller, who is an expert at breaking down those barriers, who stands out to me. Never have I witnessed someone with as much love and dedication as I have this woman – and Mustang has more than its share of talented and dedicated teachers. Whether it’s taking part in Polar Plunge each year, organizing and/or attending special events throughout the year, helping the kids believe in themselves as part of Special Olympics or just the seemingly small, everyday things she does to make their lives better, I know Miller has been a gift to countless student and their families. That’s what Matthew and his family have to look forward to – and I, for one, can’t wait to see how much that partnership brings not just to their lives, but to us all.
Published in Mustang Times March 22, 2016 and reprinted with permission