Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Holy Family School embraces physically challenged second grader – ‘Every teacher should have this experience’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the June 14, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Dave Biggers says his second grade classroom at Holy Family School, Clarkston, has come together as a team to accomodate classmate Hillar Heilman (front, right) who has cerebral palsy. (IR photo)
Fourteen second graders at Clarkston’s Holy Family School are sitting on the carpeted floor around their teacher, Mr. Dave Biggers, who is perched on a stool. He’s reading aloud from a large-format illustrated book, and everyone is paying close attention. When principal Sharon Clizer and a visitor enter the room, however, and the students jump to their feet, one of the kids does not stand.
With a toothy smile as big as anyone’s, however, Hillar Heilman, age 8, is clearly just another second grader, even though he gets around the classroom on his knees, and with great agility, too. Hillar has cerebral palsy. Even though the building that houses the school is old and far from handicapped accessible, that doesn’t stop Hillar.
“When Hillar’s mom called to talk about whether he could enroll here, last fall,” said Clizer, “I reminded her that we aren’t handicapped accessible, but I also said that we would welcome Hillar, and we would make it work, and we have.”
At lunchtime, the other second graders squabble good-naturedly over who gets to go get Hillar’s hot lunch for him, and when recess time comes around, Hillar’s classmates vie for who gets to push him out onto the playground in his wheelchair.
Hillar’s mom, Angie Steeley, declares that moving Hillar from a public school to Holy Family was “a complete change.” He hadn’t been attending core classes because of his therapy schedule. He now experiences “the whole rounded” curriculum at Holy Family.
Dabbing her eyes with a tissue, Angie continues: “Both of (Hillar’s) sisters went (to Holy Family School), and it’s just so morally sound here, and I wanted to be sure that Hillar has that, too. We had talked, when Hillar was in kindergarten, about him coming here, but we just weren’t sure, with (the building) not being handicapped accessible, and whether Hillar would get everything he needed. I called Sharon (Clizer) again, and she said, ‘We’ll make it work.’ Being here, Hillar gets the whole thing, he gets everything he gets at home.”
Hillar is anything but reticent when it comes to talking about himself and being at Holy Family Catholic School. Joined by two randomly chosen classmates, he speaks right up when replying to questions.
“My name is Hillar, and I’m seven years – eight years – old, and I’m in the second grade. I live in Clarkston.”
Hillar’s two classmates border on loquacious, too. “My name is Joanna Marie Fazzari, and I’m eight.”
“My name is Jeremy Dressen, and I’m eight.”
Joanna: “Everyone in our class is eight except for one girl.”
Jeremy: “And one boy.”
Question: “Hillar, I understand that this is your first year at Holy Family School. Have you enjoyed it?”
“Oh, yes, I have, very much!”
“What do you like most about it?”
“You can go to church every Friday, which I didn’t really go to church very often. I enjoy that we’re getting more learning. At my old school they had no snacks, and we were always hungry in the middle of the day.”
Hillar’s two classmates, Jeremy and Joanna, agree that having Hillar in their class has been a good experience. “I think that it’s really fun,” Joanna says, “because we always play with him, and it’s really fun to have (him) in our room. We think it’s really, really fun having Hillar.”
Sometimes the second graders need to go down a long series of stairs from their classroom to the school library. Hillar gets down the carpeted stairs by himself. “I go head first,” Hillar announces happily. “I (went head over heels) once because I tripped on somebody else!”
The kids at Holy Family call Biggers “Mr. B.” He is a veteran of 13 years teaching second grade at Holy Family, so he has seen a good many students pass through his classroom. Asked what the most positive effect has been of having Hillar in his class, Biggers hesitates not at all.
“The effect that he has on the other students, and myself. I realize that he has a lot more abilities than I thought he would. He’s a very smart kid, and he’s got a great attitude. I look up to people who have an attitude like that when they’re in the position that he’s in. I don’t know if I could do it, and he’s just a really positive kid, and I love him to pieces.”
Thinking back, Biggers recalls that before Hillar joined his class, the other students “were really separated and all about themselves a lot more, and I think (Hillar joining the class) got them to experience some empathy and (act more out of) consideration. They really help him. I think it has helped this group to mature that way and come together as a team.”
Biggers admits that there have been some challenges that came with having Hillar in his classroom. The main one was “working out my systems so I could manage someone who has the situation he’s in – trying to figure out how to get him up to the classroom, and how to get the other teachers on board, so we can accommodate him as a team.”
In essence, Hillar has been “mainstreamed” at Holy Family, and the result has been positive for all concerned, especially Hillar. “I’m trying to teach (Hillar) as much in a normal manner as I can,” Biggers says. “I think integrating him into the classroom and in the least restrictive environment is really important. (In the public school) he had an aide, which I was really concerned about. I made him write, and at first he bucked it, and I said, ‘No, you can do it.’
“At first I would write half, then he would write half. Or he would dictate some to me, and I would write a few things, then I would leave, and I would say, ‘You do the next four, and I’ll come back and do the next four, and I would do that, and that worked for a while. Then I got him to do all of it, and you know, he has trouble with fine motor control, (but) that kid’s handwriting has come a long way! He’s as sharp as a whip.
“(Hillar) was tested in reading and math, and he scored at the fifth and seventh grade levels, I think the reading was seventh grade. That kid loves to read! I couldn’t keep him out of my books. We’d be on our way to lunch, and he’d stop and start browsing the bookshelves. I’d say, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta go eat!’
“Every teacher should have this experience,” said Biggers. “I think it has taught me a lot about myself. I appreciate what I have a lot more, and I’ve learned that people in Hillar’s situation really are capable of far more than (so-called ‘normal people’) might think.”
Hillar’s appreciation for his Catholic faith impresses everyone who gets to know him. “I can’t tell you how happy he was about first Communion,” said Angie. “It was the happiest day of his life!”
Sometimes during school Masses, Father Thomas Connolly, pastor of Holy Family Parish, asks the students questions. “For somebody who hadn’t been going to a Catholic school before,” said Clizer, “anytime Father asks a question, Hillar has answers.”
“Hillar is really, really smart,” says classmate Joanna Fazzari.
When, for school Masses, the students take liturgical ministries such as lector, Hillar participates, too. “We have a microphone that we bring over to him so he can do part of the reading,” said Clizer.
The last comment, however, comes from Hillar himself, and it clearly reveals his ardent can-do spirit: “All I want to say is that this is a good school, and I know it’s not accessible for the handicapped, but people can help me, and I can get through it.”