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PHS Life Skills Program Creates Amazing Opportunities for Students With Disabilities

It really is one, big, happy family. That’s how it feels to both the teachers and the students at Plainfield High School’s Life Skills program. The program is for students who are developmentally considered the most severe. They struggle with a variety of issues, including Down Syndrome, seizures and autism. Most of them show some sort of communications disorder, whether that’s a language or a speech issue. A few are completely non-verbal. Many have multiple disabilities — communication, language and cognitive — of varying levels.

Though students are between 14 and 22 years old, cognitively they range from infantile to early adolescent in age. The thing they all have in common, however, is how much they love life, learning and laughter.

“These students are the most loving and polite individuals I’ve ever known,” says Jessica Breidinger, PHS Life Skills’ head teacher.

And unlike students in traditional classrooms who sometimes whine about having to learn, these kiddos genuinely want to be at school.

“We have one girl whom every day we have to tell, ‘You need to go home and go to bed so you can come back tomorrow,’” Breidinger says.

Life skills classes teach academics such as reading, math, history, science and current events, but it also includes vocational tasks to help prepare students for the next step following graduation. Therefore, they do odd jobs around the school like delivering mail to teachers, shredding papers, recycling materials and clearing tables in the cafeteria.

“These jobs work on fine and gross motor skills as well as communications skills, counting and following directions,” Breidinger says. “If you could see what we get done in a day, it’s no wonder we’re all exhausted by day’s end.”

“We get to see them experience and learn things,” adds Erika Bever, PHS Life Skills Instructional Assistant. “I love to see the joy on their faces when they figure out how to do something like tie their own shoes or read more independently.”

The 15-member class, along with their teachers (Jessica Breidinger, Erika Bever, Ashley Fife and Mary O’Connor), participate in various community outings to places like the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the Indianapolis Zoo, the Rhythm! Discovery Center, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the WonderLab Museum of Science, Health & Technology. They’ve also traveled to honey farms, apple orchards and the federal courthouse in downtown Indy.

The community outings are an extension of their classroom studies and help students work on safety skills, communication skills and social skills in other settings. For instance, they take the students to Walmart every month to buy food for their cooking lab and to the bank so students can learn how to sign a paycheck and deposit money. These outings are not only educational, but they also give students a chance to practice using their manners in public.

“We’ve been asked back to every restaurant we’ve gone to,” Breidinger says. “People always comment on how well-behaved, polite and interactive our kids are.”

The teachers tie their lessons into what they’re reading so that students grasp it better. For example, when the class was learning about growing things, they planted watermelon seeds. When they were studying history, they went to Connor Prairie. They also squeeze in some outings that are all about fun and fitness. Favorites include the bowling alley and gymnastics arenas.

“In the winter, in particular, when we’re cooped up, it’s good to get them moving,” Bever says.

To raise funds for these outings, four years ago, the school began hosting the annual Trike-A-Thon, always held in December.

“We use the Trike-A-Thon to provide backup funds to give us more freedom with our choices and experiences,” Breidinger says. They also started a scholarship fund for their club “Just Friends” to ensure that every student can participate in the community outings, regardless of their financial situation.

During the Trike-A-Thon, students who have never before ridden a bike get to zoom around the fieldhouse on a trike, regardless of their age or size.

“We have a 6’3″ student who rides an adult bike with training wheels,” Breidinger says. “We want all of our students to participate with their siblings and peers.”

Speaking of peers, the student body at PHS is wildly supportive of this endeavor. Last year, members of the student government, as well as the majority of the football team, attended the event.

“Sometimes you don’t see that crossover from athletics to special education,” Breidinger says. “I think that’s pretty amazing.”

The Trike-A-Thon includes a silent auction (32auctions.com/phstrikeathon2018) with handmade crafts, quilts and gift cards. The staff also creates a fun yet underwhelming atmosphere for the children by hiring a deejay who spins music at a lower decibel. In addition, they provide a “Sensory Santa” played by Jay Jones, Bever’s fiancé. He’s a youth pastor who formally worked at Clark’s Creek. Jones sits in a quiet hallway that is transformed into a peaceful but festive sanctuary by way of mini twinkle lights as opposed to bright fluorescent lighting.

Bever has three boys (11, 9 & 5). The two oldest are on the autism spectrum and, as a result, have never been to the mall to see Santa.

“It was just too much for them,” Bever says. “Think about how loud and chaotic the mall Santa experience is, with the intense lights, music and hustle & bustle. Here we do our best to eliminate all of that.”

Last year an 8-year-old boy came to the Trike-A-Thon and, for the first time ever, sat on Santa’s lap.

“The parents are so grateful we do this for the community,” Breidinger says. “So while we like raising money for our program, it’s about more than that, clearly.”

Jones, who grew up with two autistic brothers, understands the troubles these children experience. That’s why he sits in a chair just adjacent to a separate bench. That way if a child is not comfortable sitting on top of Santa, they can sit beside him.

Bever pursued a degree in special education so that she could be a “good mommy advocate.” Breidinger, whose entire teaching career has been at PHS, started volunteering in special education classrooms when she was in high school and realized she had found her calling.

“We love our job and our kids,” Breidinger says. They’re not the only ones. The administration at PHS is highly involved in the lives of their Life Skills students.

“We receive amazing support from our administration,” Bever says. “For example, every day our principal comes to speak with our students in the cafeteria.”

And the students are out and about in the school all the time.

“Our kids are not shut off in a room where no one sees them,” she says. “They’re out interacting with their peers every day, high-fiving, fist-bumping, saying ‘hi.’ There’s a good bit of camaraderie.”

This year’s Trike-A-Thon, open to the public, will take place from 1:30-3:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 15 at Plainfield High School.

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