My aunt brought me here 24 years ago. I lived in Pennsylvania, and graduated college in November 1991 with an education degree. I struggled for a while trying to find a teaching job. I really didn’t want to substitute up there. Then my aunt offered to bring me down here. Actually, I had an aunt in Rochester, NY, and one down here and they both offered to help me out. So, I said, “I think I’ll go to Key Largo, but I really don’t know where that is!”
So, I moved here January 1, 1992, and by February, got a teaching job. My aunt was a teacher at Key Largo School. I started there and was there for 8 ½ years. While there, I bounced around a little bit, middle school, kindergarten, 2nd grade, but I always worked with special education and special needs. My certificate is in special education. My heart is and always has been with special needs kids.
In 2000, I went to Coral Shores High School, and now work with the severely handicapped kids there. I love my job and enjoy going to work every day. They are good kids, they love me and they love the classroom. But, there are challenges. Autism itself is a challenge. These kids are with me full time. There are a lot that are non-verbal. They can communicate in their own way, with gestures or pointing or other physical ways, and it’s my job to learn how to communicate with them. Social skills are very difficult for them, and there are personal space issues. I have to push them past their comfort zone and that can be difficult sometimes.
I’m teaching them functional skills like how to eat with utensils, how to load and unload a dishwasher, how to wash and dry clothes. We used to have a bed in our room and I taught them how to make the bed. When it rains, I would say 90% of my kids don’t know how to use an umbrella…so, we try to teach them functional skills like that.
I’ve been blessed with a great classroom. It has a kitchen, a laundry room, three bathrooms, an academic room, an office. Every year, we prepare Thanksgiving dinner with the kids and we invite their parents, therapists, and school board members. Most of my kids have some form of autism, so it’s good for them to be in a social setting and around large groups. I teach them how to sit at the table and be part of things. We work closely with the parents. These kids are like family to me. This is my calling. I believe that, if given the right resources, every kid can learn.
In 2009, I was awarded Teacher of the Year. That was a nice recognition. As part of the award program, they made a video, where they came into the classroom and filmed me teaching. The day they filmed, we were making Christmas cookies in the classroom, so it really depicted how “hands-on” the teaching is with these kids.
Every single one of these kids has touched somebody’s life in some way. There is one girl in my class right now who is just so happy all the time. She’s always smiling and she wants to hug everybody. Her smile is just infectious. But, everyone is different. I have to learn each one’s needs and try to help them; get to know the child inside and out, and learn their strengths and work with those.
Before I was married, I worked with Special Olympics. I started out as a volunteer, and then a coach, then the upper Keys coordinator. When I moved to the high school, I was also the head volleyball coach, head girls basketball coach, and I was a referee as well. It all became a little overwhelming. Then I got married and we started having our kids, and it was just too much. I would like to go back to coaching when my daughter and son get a little older. Sports have always been a big part of my life. Now my kids are active in sports as well. I think it helps you to be a well-rounded person, and that’s important.
I love it here. I love the weather. We go boating, fishing and lobster-ing with the kids. It’s great being part of a community where everybody gives back. Families get together to clean up the highway, or clean up the beaches. Our community gives millions of dollars to our graduating kids in the form of scholarships every year. And anytime someone is sick or something happens, they have a benefit and raise money for them. It’s just a great place to live. Life is good down here. When I was growing up in Erie Pennsylvania, playing in the snow drifts, I never would have dreamed I would end up living in Key Largo, Florida. God takes you where you are meant to be, I believe that.