The volunteers at Club 21 are wrapping up spring session. I help there every Wednesday at ECAR, the Every Child a Reader tutorial. I am one of a cadre of ten teachers who report from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Each of us is assigned to a student with language and developmental needs. All the club members happen to have Down syndrome. We never say that they ARE Down syndrome; we say they have it. A medical condition does not define who we are.
Down syndrome is a congenital disorder. Some of our families learned of their children’s medical condition prenatally. But many others are shocked to receive a diagnosis at birth. Luckily, an increasing number of obstetricians and pediatricians are referring families whose babies have Down syndrome to Club 21 immediately. As a clearinghouse, emotional support system, and school resource, Club 21 is unmatched in the Los Angeles area. It is the brainchild of Nancy Litteken, who is a native speaker of American Sign Language (among her many other winning traits).
Language and communication can be challenges for all children. But for children with Down syndrome spoken language is invariably a struggle. Yet the earliest intervention helps the child and the whole extended family. Most parents now learn and then teach their babies sign language as their primary system. Signing gradually cohabits with oral speech. The two languages support the child’s needs and reduce frustration. When reading instruction begins, sign language links a depicted concept to a print symbol. Because the children have characteristic short-term memory issues, repetition-repetition-repetition of sign, spoken, and print language cannot be stressed enough. The wonderful outcome is that every child will read! All will labor, most will sight read, and each will surprise us.
Every Wednesday as ECAR commences, we greet the children with a ritual. One adult dispenses hand sanitizer and a spritz of lavender spray. We have the kids intone after us, “I am focused and ready to learn.” It’s just a little mantra to state our purpose and it starts our next 45 minutes with a contractual nod. Then we head up to our study areas to work. Parent conferences and teacher debriefing round out the session. The parents pay a nominal fee to help cover materials; otherwise all activity at Club 21 is volunteer-supported.
“Just imagine the possibilities” is the motto of Club 21. And even tiny miracles do occur. Recently we learned the theme of the 2012 Rose Parade will be “Just Imagine.” We think this phrase may be more comprehensive than we ever realized.
539 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena