Familiar with the true story of Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf from early childhood, yet became a famous author, political activist and lecturer in the early 20th century?
Recall the role of her gifted, devoted teacher Anne Sullivan, depicted in the drama The Miracle Worker?
Not to minimize the amazing role of “Annie” Sullivan, but there’s a 36-year-old teacher in a semi-rural school district of southeastern Pennsylvania who is working miracles with six children with disabilities as severe as Keller’s. She has also transformed the culture of an entire middle school of 900-plus “normal” students.
Today’s version of a miracle worker, Joni Hilbert-Hess, could be found before a packed auditorium of Manheim Central Middle School on Dec. 20, enthusiastically directing a pageant called “The Littlest Elf” in which her six students in wheelchairs had starring roles, assisted by 40 other students. At 4’9″, Hilbert-Hess too might be the littlest, but surely one of the most energetic, of the teachers at her school.
None of her six students was able to verbalize his or her lines, but Hilbert-Hess had found ways for each to communicate to the audience, helped by attentive schoolmates.
Tyler Brandt poked a device, held by his student helpers, to start a recorded version of the lines for his roles as Olly the Elf and Rudolph.
Another, playing Mrs. Claus, sang without forming words, in good pitch.
The student cast as “The Littlest Elf” was able to reach out and touch. And so on.
The students without obvious disabilities leaned comfortably over their friends who needed help, encouraging them to gesture at the right time or holding their hands as they together kept beat with the music.
“Joni works for us in multiple disabilities support,” said Brian Barnhart, a top administrator from the central office that employs Hilbert-Hess, by way of explaining why he left his office on the morning of Dec. 20 and drove 12 miles to see her holiday production for the sixth time in as many years.
“This is what it’s all about,” Barnhart said. “I wish I could get legislative folks and more educational leaders [to to be] here.”
Barnhart is assistant executive director of Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, a nonprofit with nearly 1,600 employees who provide special services to 22 school districts serving 100,000 students in Lancaster and Lebanon counties.
That organization, called IU 13 for short, picked Joni Hilbert-Hess out of 400 peers to receive its top annual award for special education teachers. It’s called the 2012 Annie Sullivan Award.
“Joni’s students are part of this community,” explained Barnhart. “This community is united. No one is left out. Joni has worked hard to make this happen, and she has succeeded.”
For Hilbert-Hess’ part, she sees the possibilities within her students, rather than focusing on their limitations. “There is a lot inside of them, but physically they can’t get it out,” Hilbert-Hess said during the joyous after-play party held in her classroom. It was attended by students of all kinds, family members, former parents, and even an alumnus who was in the play four years ago. Hilbert-Hess was joined by her husband, David, and their 3-year-old son. They’re expecting their third child in February.
“You have to be creative to allow them to communicate,” said Hilbert-Hess, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Millersville University and a master’s in special education from Eastern Mennonite University, earned during summer sessions at EMU’s Lancaster campus. “But once they can communicate and express their needs, their behavior problems tend to go away.”
Olly the Elf’s 13-year-old sister, Kylie Brandt, said Hilbert-Hess was “awesome” in finding out what works best for each of her students. Her brother Tyler comes home with a recorded message from Hilbert-Hess on his activities of the day. He returns to school with a recorded message from his family.
“She makes students really feel like they are part of the school – not outsiders – but exactly the same as everybody,” said Kylie, as her best friend Sydney Smith nodded emphatically.
Every line in “The Littlest Elf,” written by Hilbert-Hess for her students, was signed for deaf students in the audience. The full-time nurses and personal-care assistants assigned to four of the students with severe health issues hovered in the wings, ready for suctioning mucus or addressing seizures.
Three of the helper-students – 13-year-old Sam Maddox, Amanda Burrichter and Jess Ober – spoke of the death of a friend they had made the previous year, 19-year-old Alexandra Nikolaus, whose health had long been fragile. “It was such an honor meeting Alexandra last year,” said Maddox, with the composure of a TV announcer. “She was such a social butterfly – I loved the way she wore a different color nail polish every week.”
The three girls were among a group of students who attended Alexandra’s funeral on Aug. 3, during a month when school was not in session. The girls then organized a fundraiser in Alexandra’s name in October and early November, collecting over 200 items, such as pencils, markers, and play dough, to be used by Schreiber Pediatric, whose physical therapists had assisted Alexandra throughout her life.
Alexandra’s parents, Roseann and Paul Nikolaus, returned to see this year’s Christmas pageant, recalling that their daughter, an only child who had an infectiously buoyant spirit, had been in seven shows during the nine years she was in Hilbert-Hess’ classroom – she missed two shows due to health problems. “Once she gets them [her students] to communicate, their world opens up,” said Paul. “She got Alexandra to come out of herself,” added Roseann.
As importantly, said Roseann, “Joni works with the whole school. She’s influencing lots and lots of lives.”
Maddox and Burrichter said they know what they will be when they grow up: special education teachers, who graduate from the same colleges as Hilbert-Hess. Both plan to be volunteer buddies in a camp this summer for young people with multiple disabilities. “It’s so much fun!” said Burrichter.
Seventy middle-schoolers signed up to be buddies for the 2012-13 school year, said Hilbert-Hess. Typically, they meet their friends as they arrive at school and help them get to their second-floor classroom via an elevator. They join them at lunch and help them eat or simply hang out with them. They take them to their rides after school. Sometimes they meet at a shopping mall for fun outside of school.
“Joni’s kids take on a rock-star profile in the school,” said Scott Richardson, the principal. “These kiddos have their own little fan club.”
All of the students in grades 5 through 8 pass by Hilbert-Hess’ classroom on their way to lunch, passing equipment for physical therapy in the hallway and hearing music by the likes of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift blowing through the open doors.
Richardson points out that it is common for people unaccustomed to being around people with disabilities to feel pity for them. “But our students have gone beyond pity to recognizing that there are things some can do and some can’t do, but everyone can do something. It’s become our ‘normal’ to appreciate what can be done.”
The annual holiday play – with its painted scenery and custom-made costumes and rotating scripts, all initiated by Hilbert-Hess helped by volunteers – “gives them [students with multiple disabilities] a chance to do something no one expects them to do,” Hilbert-Hess told a Lancaster newspaper reporter. “I love seeing the look on their faces – and their parents’ faces – when they are on that stage. That’s what it’s all about.”