LAKEWOOD RANCH — Ten-year-old Skylar Cressey wasn’t sure what to expect, or even what to think, when she and her classmates arrived on the doorstep of Pinnacle Academy, a school for children with disabilities such as autism and other behavior-related disorders, for the first time earlier this month.
But nearly as soon as she arrived on campus, her concerns were alleviated.
“These kids when I first met them, they loved to talk,” Skylar said. “They showed me how to do things.
“I didn’t know they would be so much like us,” she said. “It was really fun. I’m looking forward to going back. I want to meet more people.”
Skylar and her classmates at Ashton Elementary School in Sarasota made their final of three visits to the school this month April 20. The visits were scheduled to coincide with April as National Autism Awareness Month.
Their teacher, Mill Creek resident Donna McGarry, came up with the idea for the program four years ago after speaking with a friend whose son attends the school. Because her students at Ashton are involved in the gifted program, they also participate in community service projects as part of their curriculum. McGarry thought volunteering at Pinnacle would be a perfect fit, she said.
“I really wanted (my students) to open their eyes a bit,” McGarry said. “I just like to see them stand up for kids with disabilities and treat everyone fairly and with compassion. Kids with disabilities sometimes aren’t treated very well. Obviously the world is going to be a better place if people are kinder to one another.”
Pinnacle Director Dr. Kirstina Ordetx said the concept, called “reverse inclusion” because it brings outside students into her school rather than placing autistic children into a typical classroom setting, offers her students more of a therapeutic component than taking her children from campus to interact with others.
“Our kids are in their home environment,” she said. “They feel confident. They don’t have the anxieties of being in a new environment. We find that by having that predictability they are really able to do well with friendships and coping skills.”
During their classroom visits, McGarry’s students worked with Pinnacle children by playing games, answering questions and playing together outside.
“It made my feelings a lot different about (children with disabilities),” 11-year-old Nicole Smith said of the experience. “I loved being around them and riding on the seesaw with them. I think they enjoyed us too.”
Pinnacle students agreed they enjoyed the experience and time with their new friends.
“It’s a great way to meet new people,” Pinnacle student James Kelly, 12, said. “I like to practice how to act around strangers. When you meet someone new, it’s a great way to see how to socialize in public.”
McGarry has been bringing her students to Pinnacle for the last three years. In the past, students paid for the community service project on their own, but this year McGarry received a Sarasota County Service Learning Mini-grant for $500. The amount covers all but $40 of transportation costs, which are being picked up by Pinnacle Academy.
Ordetx said students from McNeal Elementary School and Lakewood Ranch High School also volunteer at Pinnacle throughout the school year. Lakewood Ranch students currently are assisting Pinnacle students with a production of “Alice in Wonderland,” she said.
Associate Editor Jen Blanco contributed to this report.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].