Augie Terselic is a welcome member of the cast in upcoming LMS Drama production of “The Music Man”, but it wasn’t always that way
By: Heidi Terselic (Special Personal account for Loveland Beacon)
LOVELAND, OH – Birthday celebrations. Slumber parties. Pool gatherings. Play dates. Are you suddenly feeling nostalgic?
Augie recently accepted a Valentine’s gift from friend Abby Charlson – she was first to knock on the Terselic’s door and invite Augie to come out and play (Provided)
Adults can probably still feel the thrill of anticipation, when they recall being handed one of those tiny envelopes from a classmate, whose birthday was coming soon. Maybe your favorite get-togethers were the ones that included slumber parties. Back in the day, you’d often just show up at your town pool, and perhaps a friend with whom you’d spent the afternoon swimming, might ask his/her mom if you could come over for dinner. Playground groups used to be spontaneous meet-ups for neighborhood kids, while in more recent years, they often involve parents pre-arranging the time and place. Regardless of how you’d end up at a park, casual invitations from peers were sure to follow–maybe to join in a pick-up game of basketball or a game of freeze tag. What do all of these activities have in common? They are rites of passage that involve invitations.
Now imagine that you’re nine years old–but you’ve never received even one of those invitations. You’ve witnessed your siblings leave the house after accepting those invitations. You’ve been there when those siblings have welcomed a friend or a group of friends into your house. But you’ve only participated in these gatherings as the tag-along, little sibling. Why?
You don’t understand why, but your parents do. It’s because you have Down syndrome. Down syndrome, like many other conditions that involve cognitive delays, often presents obstacles in socializing, because you likely look and/or behave in ways that typical children don’t. For kids like my son Augie, Down syndrome means their speech is sometimes difficult to decipher, and their mastery of new concepts can be quite slow, requiring much more practice and repetition than same-age peers.
By the time our family moved to Loveland, Ohio, in June of 2015, our nine-year-old son, Augie Terselic, had never been offered an invitation from a peer to do anything. We had just moved for the fifth time in three-and a half years, due to my husband Mike’s work assignments.
Our four children had experienced a decade of homeschooling; two-and a half years of bilingual French/English instruction at a public school in Quebec, Canada; and a year of a public school in a west suburb of Chicago. Augie had been assigned a personal aide in Quebec and in the Chicago suburb, where administrators and staff had been wonderfully supportive. However, while he’d experienced many classes with typical peers, Augie had never made a consistent, close connection with any child he could refer to as “my friend.” Unable to articulate his feelings, he still knew what he was missing. I understood exactly how he was feeling, because as his mother, I shared the pain of this void in his life. I’d become quite good at holding back tears, as I observed his peers gravitate toward their preferred, familiar friends, laughing about shared experiences and making plans to get together outside of school. Meanwhile, Augie walked alone, unless beside an assigned adult aide.
Friends celebrate Augie Terselic’s (wearing #19 Jersey) winning play as they escort him off the dodgeball court (Provided)
Fast-forward to being at Loveland Elementary School. After I began volunteering, I was intrigued by a wall display of about 50 handwritten papers. Upon reading them, I discovered that each was a personal essay in which individuals had pleaded their case for why they should be chosen to be Ambassadors. These “applications” had been utilized to select students who would become Ambassadors – mentors – to their peers with special needs. It took me a moment to process, but I realized that this school had so many kids who desired to help their peers with special needs, that there were more applicants than Ambassador positions available! Every week, I looked forward to observing the Ambassadors who alternated at scheduled times, to interact with these peers through reading books, enjoying board games, or playing gross-motor games to help them develop balance and coordination.
Before long, Augie came home dropping peers’ names; they were the Ambassadors he was playing with. Before and after school, I was stunned to see many children calling out his name and high-fiving him. Eager to acknowledge these new friends, he was chosen to be paired with a favorite Ambassador to be an outside greeter during morning drop-off time.
During the next year, our doorbell started ringing–a lot! The first time, I opened the door to five of Augie’s female classmates walking home from the neighborhood pool. They asked if Augie could come out and play with them.
I don’t know who was more shocked, his three big sisters, my husband, or me! Augie raced outside to enjoy this spontaneous play date with the girls. Meanwhile I joked with my husband, (whom I’d met back in grade school,) saying: “This kid has more finesse with the ladies than you ever had when we were that age!” We’d finally hit a major milestone. Augie started receiving and extending his own play date invitations.
Once Augie was a student at Loveland Intermediate School, we hesitantly signed him up for the Loveland Youth Basketball League. We knew he was the only player with Down syndrome – the least experienced player – but we were blown away by the accommodations made for him. Most of the players already knew him from school! Players from the opposing team pointed to the player he should be defending. His teammates reminded him where he needed to be on the court. Coaches patiently repeated plays to him, while officials playfully bantered with him.
Several times when Augie got the ball, both teams froze – as if rehearsed – to allow him a better-than-fair chance at making a basket. The experience was better than anything we could have imagined, so we returned for a second season.
Augie presented his drama mentor, Hayden Ducker, a birthday card for his 16th birthday (Provided)
Twice Augie participated in Loveland Public Schools’ show choir summer camp. While not precise enough to make audition cuts with the year-round show choir, he is able to experience the same choreography and singing at the summer camp. His love of hip-hop dancing, and pop and show tunes is welcomed by peers who share these mutual interests. Through his church membership he was able to perform with his sisters in St. Columban School’s production of “The Sound of Music.” There, he met a lovely new friend who taught him the dance in the ballroom scene. Imagine my delight while recently watching Augie’s three big sisters’ Loveland show choir competition, when Carol Hall, the Loveland Middle School Drama director, introduced herself to me. She already knew who Augie was, and she enthusiastically invited him to perform in her upcoming production of “The Music Man”; one of Augie’s favorite, classic musicals. My heart swelled. I assured her we were interested.
Carol immediately began personally preparing Augie for success. She connected me with a mother named Sarah Ducker, whose son Hayden is a Loveland High School sophomore in show choir and drama. Carol and Sarah both shared that Hayden had a heart for kids with special needs, once having served as a drama mentor to a peer with special needs. I expressed our interest in trying this arrangement. As soon as I met Hayden, I was impressed. More importantly, Augie was instantly taken with Hayden’s genuine interest in keeping him actively engaged. Hayden has a remarkable ability to keep Augie focused, all while interjecting humor throughout rehearsals.
Because of Hayden’s ability to influence Augie to stay in character, Augie is performing without my hovering backstage. It’s priceless for him to be able to engage with peers, without a parent or other adult assigned to him. After all, what junior-high boy wants an adult to stand between him and his peers? I credit much to Hayden’s parents for raising him to be a compassionate young man. I commend Hayden for taking the initiative to engage with kids with special needs. Yet, it is very obvious to me that the schools set the stage for real connections between typical and special-needs peers.
Hayden Ducker (plaid open shirt) models the acting Augie imitates at rehearsal for LMS’s production of “The Music Man.” (Provided)
Inclusion is a culture that is taught from kindergarten through senior year in Loveland Public Schools. I attribute its success to students, teachers, administrators, and parents alike, who take active roles in it every day. Nothing instills inclusion in students and adults more effectively than natural, daily interactions in all areas, including art, physical education, and music. It is so rare to find a school that continuously explores new opportunities for inclusion. I think the key is that Loveland Public Schools’ students don’t know any different than to share their classrooms with students with varied abilities. I realize that we “struck gold” in discovering Loveland Public Schools, where the beauty of inclusion is evident every day.
Just last month, I posted a video on social media that I believe captured the essence of inclusion. In the video of the school’s charity dodgeball tournament, my son is shown playing on a team of boys who invited him to participate, and the crowd of peers chants Augie’s name repeatedly, as he triumphantly gets the last opposing player out.
At that moment, I had to fight tears – but this time, tears of joy – as I steadied my phone to record this beautiful moment. I didn’t think that feeling of inclusion could get any better! But Augie’s current experience with Hayden as his drama mentor, continues our exhilarating ride that is inclusion at Loveland Public Schools.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Watch for Augie and the full cast in the Loveland Middle School production of “The Music Man” coming to the LMS stage in late April. Full show preview story coming on Loveland Beacon