Jacob paints Thomas the Tank Engine. (Michael Hall/THE NEWS)

Jacob paints Thomas the Tank Engine. (Michael Hall/THE NEWS)

Spreading their Wings

Daniel naps each afternoon on a bean bag chair in a quiet, dark room near the office at school.

  • Jun. 21, 2018 12:00 a.m.

Daniel naps each afternoon on a bean bag chair in a quiet, dark room near the office at school.

It’s his siesta time, and helps keep him regulated for the afternoon.

Outside, the hallways at Maple Ridge secondary can be busy, which upsets Daniel, and sometimes he acts out.

It’s then that Dee Dee Smith works to calm him down. It can be a physical job.

Often, Daniel and Dee Dee retreat to the quiet room to relax. There they’ll talk, or read, or sing, sometimes listen to music.

Dee Dee, an educational assistant with the Wings program, said Daniel likes to sing, especially nursery rhymes – Jack and Jill, Little Miss Muffet, Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Daniel, 18, has been with the Wings program since Grade 8. He is not autistic, but has a chromosome disorder. He also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and just one kidney, which is one of the reasons why, until recently, he couldn’t take medication for his anxiety.

His anxiety is an issue. But medication helps.

Wings is district-wide intensive needs program for low-incidence students, from those with autism spectrum disorders to Down syndrome. Students must meet criteria to be accepted. The program aims to help students transition to independence in adulthood – to spread their wings.

Staff help find jobs for some or other roles in the community. Some don’t have that ability and will need continued care.

Funding comes from the province, as well as other sources, such as grants from the Maple Ridge Community Foundation, KidSport and other charitable organizations.

Other schools have similar programs, but not all are as comprehensive.

Wings has one teacher, seven EAs, and 10 students. Next year its expects to have 12 students, including Daniel.

He will return for Grade 13, then graduate.

Dee Dee said what he does next is up to his parents, but Daniel has high needs.

He starts each school day at 9 a.m., to avoid the rush of students arriving to start classes.

Dee Dee is with Daniel all day, and has even spent time with him outside of school hours. She said Daniel feels the need to have others understand him, but since he talks in bursts, not always completing words, she acts as his translator.

Yes, he wants to be heard.”

She hears him.

They start each day by saying hello to the office staff, then they’ll have a snack, go for a walk around the track or do yoga. She’ll read him stories – preferably Franklin and Arthur – and talk about the Vancouver Canucks.

Daniel doesn’t know his ABCs, or numbers, or colours, but he will watch an entire hockey game, including the playoffs. His favourite players are Kevin Bieksa and Daniel Sedin, the latter possibly because they share a name.

In the mornings, Dee Dee and Daniel chart the Canucks’ wins and losses. They’ve go over who scored. To keep up, Dee Dee has to watch the games, too.

“Luckily, I like hockey, so it’s all good,” Dee Dee said.

Educational assistants mainly work with just one student, and Dee Dee said keeping a close relationship with families is paramount.

Physical activity is another key component.

Every Monday and Wednesday, the students have pool therapy. With the Leisure Centre in Maple Ridge currently closed for renovations, the educational assistants and teachers fill up the school van and take the students to a pool in Langley, where they exercise in the water.

On Thursdays, the students go alternately to Wayland Sports, a gymnastics centre in Maple Ridge, or the Coffee House at the Greg Moore Youth Centre.

On Fridays, they go bowling.

“Those body breaks are important,” to cope with hyperactivity, said James McCloskey, a teacher who joined the Wings program in December.

Wings also promotes healthy living. Students go shopping for groceries every Tuesday at Save-On Foods.

On Thursdays, the students use those groceries to make lunches, such as tuna wraps, at school.

The school facility itself contributes to the program’s success.

The track, having a rubberized surface, is wheelchair accessible.

The school also has two vans, which the Wings students utilize for all their weekly trips.

Merkley Park, adjacent to the school, is used for science classes, releasing butterflies raised in the classroom and taking pictures of that. Students collect acorns by a stand of tall trees.

Some tend to a community garden with raised beds at the school daily – weeding, raking and watering – applying what they’ve learned in class. They have also started growing a tree from seeds.

The class space itself has multiple rooms, allowing for separation and minimizing distractions. Sometimes students have outbursts. Some have seizures. Others require feeding tubes.

A sign posted on a wall reads: cool, calm and in control – hands, feet, breathe, reset.

Through it all, the dignity of the students is maintained.

Maintaining a good sense of humour helps, McCloskey said.

‘Sassy Pants,’ an autistic student with a penchant for being silly, never fails to put a smile on his face, and he jokes with her, in a gentle way, as is his demeanor.

Her name is Giannia, and she starts every morning in an exercise swing, listening to Miley Cyrus.

She and the students plan their own activities, based on needs and what they like, using a digital or symbol scheduler, called an Adapter. It helps foster independence, McCloskey said.

Art is another key part of the program.

Mel Williams, another EA, leads art therapy. She started a project in which everyone involved with the program will create their own wings.

McCloskey is going to replicate the logo of the Weyburn Red Wings, a junior A hockey team his eldest son Liam played for this past season, in the same league as the Humboldt Broncos.

All the EAs bring something personal to the program.

One does yoga with the students. Another does carving with them. Another does gardening.

Mel said it’s good to have male EAs, to help with physical and personal care of the students.

“All of us are here because we really want to be here,” she said.

They all understand the needs of the students and share a passion for helping them.

“Everyone deserves to reach their fullest potential,” Mel said.

“It’s a real love to be part of that.”

To celebrate their successes.

Mel primarily works with Jacob, 15. He’s autistic with sensory issues. When he first arrived at MRSS, the school was larger than his last, everything was new – the classrooms, the teachers, the students. Everything was louder. He struggled with the changes. He would “bolt” school. It would take multiple staff to chase him down.

He would have behavioural challenges daily.

He was assigned to Mel, who does well with behavioural issues.

It was a steep learning curve for her and Jacob, at first.

But she learned his strengths and interests.

“It was obvious – drawing,'” she said.

Mel is an art instructor, teaching evening classes outside of school.

Jacob also loves cats.

Mel got a cat, an orange female tabby.

She showed Jacob pictures of her cat as a way to connect.

He called her cat “Ginja Ninga.”

So Mel named her cat Ginger.

She calls Jacob “Jakey.” She said he is affectionate and likes to hold hands when they walk laps around the track. He likes her to read to him, especially in an animated way.

At first, she read him Thomas the Tank Engine stories. So Jacob would draw and paint pictures of Thomas the Tank Engine, many of which now decorate the classroom walls.

Jacob loves to draw. He draws hundreds of pictures a day. He’ll mark the outlines of the train in black, then paint between them.

Jacob is a talented artist, so much so that Mel thinks he can show his art, to show others what autistic students are capable of, to share his gift.

Jacob goes weeks at a time now without behavioural issues. He’s calmer and more independent. He walks into class by himself, goes to his locker by himself, checks his calendar by himself, goes to his desk by himself.

He’s happy, and confident.

Mel credits the classroom space, the separation when needed, for part of Jacob’s growth.

A quiet zone sign on backside of the lunchroom door was put their for Jacob, who sits in a chair assembling Lego.

“He’s really coming out of his shell,” Mel said.

He’s advocating his needs.

When they went swimming recently, Jacob, on his own, walked up to the receptionist and asked her a question.

“He’s never done that before.”

Jacob asked if she would hang one of his drawings on a wall – one warning to take the stairs, not the elevator, if there is a fire.

“Art is communication for him,” Mel said.

She thinks, by Grade 11, he could be a candidate for the Wings work experience program.

“He has so much potential to be happy and successful in life, engaging with his community,” she said.

“To be part of his community.”

Mel and the other EAs see the differences they make in the lives of the students.

Emily, another student, fills the classroom with joy in her daily mischief and giggles. She loves math and spelling, and has many friends in Wings.

“When Emily is sick, she is sad she can’t come to school,” Mel said.

Jacob didn’t want to come to school at first. Now he’s an artist.

Emma, another student, entered the district chowder competition, making a Mexican version.

The last day of school is June 22. The staff and students of Wings will host a picnic in the park.

Daniel likes pizza, tacos and most anything barbecued.

Editor’s note: Maple Ridge secondary and the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News would like to thank the Wings parents for sharing information about their respective children and their support in doing so.

Maple Ridge News