As I write these words, it is one month before our daughter Jessica's graduation from high school. It has been a long school career filled with many struggles and accomplishments. Jess went to the prom as a freshman, and she will go again this year. She has experienced field trips, school functions and most other activities at Williamsville East High School. Jess attended school each day with her lunch, her notebook and a smile.
Jess is 21 and is nonverbal and non-ambulatory, with complex multiple needs. She has always benefited from a public education that was geared toward her unique needs. Parent participation has been a key issue in our journey through special education, working collaboratively with her teachers and district to create an appropriate program that addressed her needs and strengths.
Jess has learned how to feed herself, say Mama at age 17 (how great is that?) and identify icons on her computer. She can use her walker, drink from a straw and enjoy uncomplicated computer games. Most of all, she has become a socially interactive, happy young woman. Although these tasks appear to be simple, they are great accomplishments for our daughter.
When our son graduated, he had a plan. He would go to a university for four years and later move on to his adult path. But what about Jess? What does a 21-year-old woman with severe developmental delays have to look forward to as she graduates?
As a parent, this question brings much joy and sadness. A natural sadness emerges because as Jess reaches yet another milestone in life, we are again faced with the enormous differences between Jess and her peers. She will never marry, never own a home and never be a mother. One can get bogged down with this reality.
However, what do we all ultimately strive for: love, friendship, happiness, joy and satisfaction. Jess has already achieved many of those goals, plus she has a killer smile! Our hope is that she will continue on the same path as an adult.
Those who know Jess see the connection she creates with others, although no words are spoken. Jess has acquired many caring friends. Her giggle and constant smile show all of us that she is a happy, self-confident young woman.
Jess will not go to college, but she will go to an adult program each day. There, our hope is that Jess will feel useful, have friends, laugh, hum familiar tunes and continue to maintain the goals she has achieved while striving to reach new heights. Do we know for sure this will happen? No. But Jess has interned for one year at her future program and all of the pieces for a successful transition are in place. Our parental role will not end with high school. We will have to maintain continuous contact to ensure that her needs are being met appropriately.
We say thank you to Jessica's teachers (Les and Val), therapists and the Williamsville School District for all they have done.
When Jess graduates next month, she will use her walker to ambulate across the stage, and I will be by her side. That's where I have always been and plan to be as we both continue our paths. We do not feel sadness and we do not feel sorry for Jess and all the "things" she will miss. Jess earned her place among the graduating class of 2003. Our family will greet her graduation with pride and joy. We look forward to her future.
VICKIE RUBIN is director of the Early Childhood Direction Center in Buffalo.
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