First-year James E. Duckworth Principal Lisa Wenzel said she knows from experience that working with special needs students can become a life-long passion.
“Once you find a passion for this kind of work, it’s in you,” said Wenzel, who came to Duckworth as a volunteer in 1984, when she was a senior at High Point High School in Beltsville. She worked her way from paraprofessional to teacher to administrator at the Beltsville school for students with severe or multiple disabilities.
When she looks at the more than 80 students from area elementary and middle schools who have volunteered to work with the special needs students of Duckworth for Special Olympics Challenge Day on Friday, she sees herself in them, she said.
“You may be looking at future teachers,” she said.
Challenge Day — which takes place each spring at the school for students from ages 5 to 21 with severe or multiple disabilities — gives students the chance to participate in athletic endeavors modified to fit their ability level. Duckworth students’ ability levels prevent them from participating in traditional sports in the Special Olympic program, said Wenzel.
Four Prince George’s County schools hold Challenge Days — Tanglewood Regional in Clinton, Panorama Elementary Program in Temple Hills, and Oxon Hill Middle School in Fort Washington.
Ten-year-old Laurel resident Annaliese Hammond, a fourth-grader at Beltsville Academy, is one of about 80 peer mentors from Beltsville Academy, Concordia Lutheran School in Hyattsville, and John Nevins Andrews School in Takoma Park, who work with Duckworth students for more than two months.
They practiced the skills they need to accomplish the athletic tasks they’ve been set, like carrying a ball in a lacrosse stick to a goal, or swimming through an obstacle course. On Friday, about 800 students, volunteers, family members and officials gathered to celebrate the efforts of the students.
Annaliese stood behind Duckworth student Edina Joldusic, 7, of Laurel as they stepped up to a T-ball stand. She held Edina’s elbows and guided her to swing at the plastic ball on the stand, sending it about 5 feet away, and the crowd cheered.
Annaliese said she’s learned a lot from Edina, who has Autism, a disorder that impairs communication and social interaction.
“A lot of people don’t understand special needs kids,” Annaliese said. “Like if they hit you or yell, they’re not trying to be mean or anything. They’re just telling you what they want or they need something.”
As Wenzel predicted might happen, now that Annaliese has worked with a special needs student, she said she wants to become a teacher or therapist one day.
“I’d like to keep doing stuff like this,” Annaliese said.