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Educating by example

Sat., Feb. 11, 2006

All Amber Green ever wanted was a paycheck.

She worked hard, after all, often spending hours at night getting ready to teach at school the next day.

But the 24-year-old has never been compensated for her work. For the longest time, no one would even hire her.

Born with severe cerebral palsy, Green can’t walk or talk. Once in a while, her muscles get so tight she can hardly move. But she’s able to get around in a wheelchair. And she can communicate by pressing keys on a talking computer.

So for seven years Green has volunteered as a teacher’s aide at St. Charles Catholic School. For 20 hours a week, she helps preschoolers learn the days of the week, the weather, even basic phrases in Spanish. She leads them in the Pledge of Allegiance, reads books during story time and offers the blessing before meals.

With its limited budget, however, St. Charles never had the money to pay Green.

That changed Friday. Thanks to a grant from the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the woman who has worked with practically every kid at the school finally received her first paycheck.

“We celebrate Amber and her dedication to fulfill her dream,” said Peggy McFarland, one of two preschool teachers who work closely with Green. “We thank God for blessing us with her presence.”

Sitting in her wheelchair in front of the crowded school gym, the petite young woman beamed. She cocked her head back and let out a joyful sound, a throaty rumble that seemed to be on the verge of laughter. Then she banged on a few keys.

“I am sooo happy,” said the computer’s digital voice.

The audience of more than 240 students burst into applause.

Every year, about 500 individuals from throughout the country apply for a Quality of Life grant from the Christopher Reeve Foundation, but fewer than 200 receive an award.

The committee that granted the award felt Green’s work leaves a positive impact on hundreds of young lives, Donna Valente, director of Quality of Life Grants, said during a phone interview.

“The Christopher Reeve Foundation is thrilled to be part of this special day for Amber, St. Charles and the Spokane community,” she said.

As a result of the award, St. Charles will provide Green a salary of $4,369 this year. Skip Bonuccelli, the school principal, hopes to find other grants and sources of income so that the teacher’s aide can continue receiving a paycheck.

“We’re very grateful to St. Charles,” said Green’s mother, Barb Green. “This was her first job experience, and she has learned a lot. … Amber is qualified and capable. She truly deserves this.”

Green discovered her love for children and education as a student at Ferris High School. A teacher there became Amber’s role model, challenging her to dream and forcing her to meet high expectations.

After graduating in 1997, Green searched everywhere for a job as a teacher’s aide. But after hearing about her disability, several schools didn’t interview her, according to her mom. “We’ve had a lot of disappointments,” said Barb Green. “Many places won’t hire people with special needs.”

The Arc of Spokane, an organization that has assisted those with developmental disabilities for 60 years, helped place Green at St. Charles. From the moment she was hired, the young woman started spending much of her free time going to the library and bookstores preparing lesson plans. After finding the appropriate material, she designs flashcards and inputs words and phrases into her computer.

Eager and energetic, Green is never daunted by challenge, said McFarland, a teacher at the school since 1992.

“What are you going to do with your money, honey?” McFarland asked the young woman as she helped wheel her into the gym. “You’re going to go out and party!”

Since she arrived at St. Charles, Green has become a significant part of the children’s educational experience, according to Bonuccelli.

“Her disability, in itself, is a learning tool,” he said. “Each day she comes to school the students see the determination, commitment and drive of a person who cares about them and the school.”

By being there, she has helped kids realize that everyone’s different, said Barb Green. Yet, despite the differences, each person – regardless of size and shape, color of skin or abilities – has something to offer and can contribute to society.

Emily Girkin, a fourth-grader, remembers when she met “Miss Green” as a preschooler many years ago. She was the teacher who always had a smile on her face, the one who reminded kids that there’s always a reason to be happy.

“Anything is possible in life,” Bonuccelli told the students shortly after Green received her paycheck in the gym. “No matter what you want, if you want it bad enough, if you care enough, if you work hard enough and if you believe in yourself, it can happen.

“Miss Green is living proof.”


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