By Grace Vomacka ’20
Juniors at Fenwick are required to complete 30 hours of service to fulfill the third year of the Christian Service Project. For freshman year, students participate in a charity initiative in their Theology classes. Sophomores spend a day visiting people in need around Chicago and its suburbs. Junior year is when our service becomes more independent. Although a list of pre-approved volunteer sites is provided, it is really up to us to decide where we want to serve.
The purpose of the Christian Service Project is to serve people who are considered poor or in need. Our ministry experiences introduce us to Christ in unexpected places. Many juniors struggle with figuring out where they want to serve.
Since the year I went into seventh grade, I have spent one or two days a week each summer at Soaring Eagle Academy, a school [in Lombard, IL] for kids with autism and related disorders, which are commonly viewed as a severe disadvantage to a child. The students often struggle with academic and social interactions. (See sidebar.) At Soaring Eagle, students develop interaction and communication skills while achieving higher levels of learning.
Many parents of children with autism decide to enroll their kids in a school such as Soaring Eagle. Therefore, a large number of my peers do not often interact with students who are affected by autism, so these students are often overlooked. Christ spoke for all people while he lived on earth, and he showed intense companionship and love to them. Christ is present in the students of Soaring Eagle in the boundless love they spread.
Every year, I have assisted in a primary classroom, interacting with students
from ages five to about eight. These students are hard-working, intelligent and enthusiastic, and so are their teachers. Each student has her or his own teacher assistant, who spends the most individual time with that particular student. In addition, there are classroom teachers, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and social workers who best heighten the social and educational skills of the students. In a primary classroom, there are about 10 children. They each have a “spot” in the room where their personal belongings and current academic utilities are stored. These spots are where they read and are taught lessons.
This year, the primary classroom I was helping in was facing the daunting task of moving rooms, so in addition to spending time with students, I helped to sort out the new room. I made name banners, labelled bins and prepared materials for learning.
Although the classroom was moving, the curriculum did not slow down for the students. They still had daily lessons following a weekly lesson plan, and the change did not hinder their learning in any way. Over the five summers I have volunteered at Soaring Eagle, I have become accustomed to a primary learning routine, which is much different than mine was. This educational experience is a lot more individualized.
Because of the small class sizes and individualized learning, the atmosphere of the school is very personal. It is easy to get to know the staff as well as the students when spending time there. It is extremely evident that every staff member completely loves their job and enjoys every day they spend at Soaring Eagle. They cultivate a welcoming environment for any visitor — especially volunteers.
The few hours I spent there each week were filled with kind people who epitomize Christ’s earthly mission. They work tirelessly to serve those in need, and they do it with a cheerful attitude and a smile.
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), impacts the nervous system. The range and severity of symptoms can vary widely. Common symptoms include difficulty with communication, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests, and repetitive behaviors. Early recognition, as well as behavioral, educational, and family therapies may reduce symptoms and support development and learning. For more information go to: https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism
Grace Vomacka, a junior student-athlete at Fenwick High School, runs for the Friars’ Cross Country Team. Grace resides with her family in Riverside, IL, where she attended St. Mary School. Her brother, Jack ’18, is a freshman at the University of Southern California.