As a part of St. Nicholas School’s outreach program, seventh- and eighth-grade students visit and interact with students at the Morgan Autism Center throughout the year.
Sent in groups of four, the St. Nicholas students travel to the San Jose facility to work and interact with Morgan Autism Center children.
The Center is a nonprofit dedicated to helping children and adult clients with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability found in children with 24,000 new cases diagnosed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is more prevalent than juvenile diabetes, pediatric cancer and childhood AIDS combined.
In California, the caseload has tripled in the eight years between 2002 and 2010, recording a growth from 17,000 to more than 60,000.
“The students at St. Nicholas gain an appreciation, a tolerance and an understanding of children with developmental disabilities,” said Liz Fraiser, a parent who helps organize the visits. “It can be mysterious to them, but they understand that these kids deserve love and respect. You can talk about it, but when they work side by side they really get it.”
The small group helps create a calm and intimate atmosphere for the students to work with the developmentally delayed and autistic students. While at the center, they work on everything from basic eye contact and social skills to crafts and puzzles.
“The Morgan Autism students are always very excited to see our St. Nicholas students and often tell them how much they love them,” Fraiser said. “The St. Nicholas students are very supportive and encouraging.”
One tradition the students often join in is the “Woo Hoo” dance – a festive celebration after students complete a task.
“There is not a time when I do not leave the Morgan Autism kids without a lump in my throat,” Fraiser said. “It is truly a spiritual experience.”
The St. Nicholas students value their time with the Morgan Autism students as well.
“Interacting and bonding with the autistic teenagers was a moving experience that I have cherished,” said St. Nicholas eighth-grader Annie Gallivan. “Spending time with them and getting to know each individual was a lot of fun, and we mutually never failed to put smiles on each other’s faces.”
And the Center students benefit from the unique experience with mainstream students, said Sally Hird, an assistant teacher at the Morgan Autism Center.
“The most important benefit is being able to interact with a typical peer,” she said. “A lot of our students have no other chance to develop friendships with typical peers. They are basically at school with the same types of students. Just being with peers who can speak and tell them jokes and show them how to do things is very wonderful.”
Outreach and community service is an integral part of the St. Nicholas School education. Students work on community service and giving-back projects throughout their years at St. Nicholas and by seventh and eighth grades, they may work with the students at the Center.
Fraiser said that by junior high the students are prepared to give back in a more interactive fashion.
The Morgan Autism Center and St. Nicholas School have a special relationship, which has reached beyond the classroom visits. Last year when the center was looking for creative fundraising ideas, musically inclined St. Nicholas dads stepped up and volunteered to present a restaurant dinner and band concert as a fundraiser.
“It was a great celebration and many Morgan Autism teachers and administrators came and danced the night away with our St. Nicholas parents,” Fraiser said. “All in celebration of this event to help the kids. There is truly a special relationship between these two schools.”
For more information, visit stnicholaslah.com and morgancenter.org.