By Kaye Bennett
It was inevitable they’d become pals. Officer Mark Petersen, employed by the Vicksburg Police Department for nine years and serving as school resource officer at Sunset Elementary School in Vicksburg, says, “I have real joy in reaching out to kids who are challenged. . . I seek them out and get to know them.” Sam McNeal, a soon-to-be fourth-grader at Sunset has Down syndrome and, according to his dad, Nate McNeal, a “. . . fascination with police and firemen,” not to mention a huge collection of toy fire trucks.
So, when Officer Petersen shows up at Sunset in his squad car, it’s all Sam’s para-pro, Kris DeVries, can do to keep him from dashing across the parking lot and launching himself at Petersen. “He wants to run to him and give him a ginormous hug,” she laughs.
Immediately after Sam’s birth, the hospital put his parents, Nate and Carrie, in touch with KRESA for physical and occupational therapy for their son. By age three, Sam was already at Sunset, says its principal, Pat Moreno, attending the Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) program for Schoolcraft and Vicksburg children. At that point, Moreno says, Sam was at the school four half-days a week, learning social skills.
Then the school district’s special ed teacher developed an individualized education plan based on Sam’s strengths and his needs, and a para-pro was assigned to deliver the program. Every child in the Vicksburg schools is treated as an individual, says Moreno. “We believe that all children deserve a free and appropriate education . . . and that each child learns at a different rate and has different strengths.” When a child has significant needs, like Sam, the process is more formal, she adds.
Nate McNeal says that his son is on the upper end of the Down’s ability range. “He can write,” McNeal says, “and he reads and does math. He’s pretty self-sufficient.” McNeal gives Sunset and the Vicksburg schools much of the credit for that. “They look at his program and make it better every year.”
One of the things that Sam’s been learning at Sunset is how to interact with other children. Sam loves to help out with the young children in the ECSE room, says Moreno. “Sam just blossoms when he’s helping the little ones. He’s a leader there.” And, because he needs a little extra time eating his lunch, Moreno says, the fifth-graders take him under their wing in the cafeteria.
DeVries describes Fifth-Grade Buddies, a new program designed recently to help Sam interact with older students. “We found kids in the school who were good models and could help teach Sam to work in groups.” The goal of that program, DeVries says, is to help Sam become more accountable for his actions and to keep him in the flow of things.”
And then there’s Officer Petersen.
Petersen, says DeVries, “takes the time . . . he always sits down with Sam, gets down to his level, and talks with him. . . He sees Sam as a friend.” When Petersen demonstrated the squad car’s lights and siren, “Sam went crazy with delight,” says his para-pro. “It touches my heart,” she adds, “. . . that he spends that much time with Sam.”
“Sam’s a funny little guy,” says Petersen. “I have really short hair . . . and he doesn’t have much hair either. He loves to rub my head.”
Everyone agrees that Sam’s not the only one who’s better off because he’s at Sunset. “It benefits the other kids as much as it benefits Sam,” says McNeal. “They learn that, even though he’s different, he still the same as them. He likes to do the same things. It teaches the other kids not to be afraid of someone with a disability.”
DeVries says that she too has learned from Sam. “He taught me patience. . . I learned to never give up and to keep trying different methods till he caught on.” She laughs. “He’s a slow walker, so I also learned to slow down.”
“Nobody should think a special needs kid isn’t capable of doing what others can,” says DeVries. “They may take a little longer or need a push, but with guidance and love and time and effort, they can do it.”
That guidance and love come from the whole village. “Everybody works together to ensure Sam’s success,” says Moreno. “His parental support has been amazing.”
Like the others, Moreno believes that “. . . we get more from Sam than we give. . . He’s a joy. He’s always got a smile on his face, and he brightens your day.”
For the next few months, Sam will be going to summer school at Lake Center Elementary in Portage, Nate McNeal says. But he’ll also be swimming (the family lives near Barton Lake) and cooking. Sam loves to cook, says his dad . . . a natural for the son of a chef. (Nate McNeal owns Bud’s Bar in Schoolcraft.) He says that Sam especially likes helping make pizza and spaghetti and meatballs.
But come fall, Sam will be back at Sunset, on the lookout for his buddy, Officer Petersen and his police car.