Every Wednesday, a group of seniors go downtown to the Notre Dame School, a special services school for mentally challenged students. Located just off Woodall Rogers Freeway, the school seeks to provide not only an academic education, but a series of life skills that ultimately allow the student to become independent.
The school is broken into four “grades” in which the kids are sorted either by age or mental ability. Primary is the lowest level for very young children, followed by Intermediate, which is like typical elementary school material. Upon graduating from Intermediate, a student moves to Bridges, where many of the life skills like cooking, laundry, and grocery shopping are taught, to prepare the students to move into society. It is here that they learn how to relate to others in society, proper social behavior, finances, and maintaining a job. After completing this “grade,” a student moves on to the final level, Vocations, in which the kids spend half of the day continuing their education, and the other half engaged in an internship or job of some kind, in an effort to ease their transitions into the real world.
Mrs. Rush, who is in charge of the Jesuit seniors who help, stressed to us the similarities between our lives and the lives of Notre Dame School students, that, although we may seem different at first, we are engaged in many of the same things. Just like the kids, we must learn how to conduct ourselves in a social environment and how to take care of ourselves on our own. We take internships and look for jobs just like they do, as Mrs. Rush pointed out.
I work in Group 2 of Intermediate. Within each major “grade” are multiple groups that consist of many students with similar abilities. Because our group has some of the more rowdy kids, two Jesuit seniors are assigned to these kinds of groups. On Wednesdays, senior Josh Vander Heiden and I check-in with the front office and head straight to the 2nd story gym for PE. We play basketball and hockey with the kids, run races, and have free play time.
After PE, Group 2 moves just down the hall to Computer, where the kids interact with the SmartBoard, learning colors, numbers, days of the week, and months from games on the Internet. The kids use the microphone to record their voice reading and play it back to the class, each student eagerly awaiting his or her turn.
Our last class with the Group 2 is Social Studies, where Josh and I perform a variety of hand signals that represent the different landforms of the earth. The class does a lot of hands-on projects, so we help cut out paper and glue things down.
Finally, it is time for Intermediate lunch, so we make our way to the Cafeteria, where the food service, usually comprised of Bridges and Vocations students gaining job experience, has a plate of Mexican food prepared for any student who is buying lunch. All of the Jesuit seniors helping with Intermediate sit in the cafeteria with the kids while they eat lunch, and spend some time talking to them and getting to know them.
Following lunch, the kids and the seniors walk outside to the plaza, where the most fun part of the day, recess, occurs. From basketball shoot-around to pick-up volleyball, the kids simply love running around and having fun.
It is always sad to leave, especially when the kids are so happy to see us, but we assure them that we will be back the next week, and tell them goodbye.
Though such a simple act, serving at the Notre Dame School is extremely rewarding.
“I like seeing all of their faces light up with excitement when we walk into their classrooms,” said Josh.
Not five minutes into the drive back to campus, we are already sharing stories about what happened that day, and we can’t wait to return the next Wednesday.