I was never the person who knew at a young age they wanted to be a teacher, but I find myself here today with a passion that runs deep. It’s not an easy road to travel every day in more ways the one, but there are a lot of rewards in the things I do. You might say it’s a family affair with so many of us committed to the same purpose. Eight years ago, my nephew, Michael, was born with cerebral palsy, and none of us knew what the future would hold. Fast forward and the future is very bright for all of us. Michael is excelling in third grade at an inclusive charter school in East Orlando dedicated to helping children of all abilities learn and grow together while embracing eachother’s differences. Those are the life lessons my family has learned too.
My journey started with my sister, Dr. Rebecca Hines, a professor at the University of Central Florida, who has dedicated her life’s work to ensuring children with disabilities are part of an inclusive education and society. She encouraged me to get involved with UCP of Central Florida’s East Orange/Bailes campus, the school Michael attends, because they were doing incredible things to educate children in an inclusive environment. Although it is a long drive from my home in Lake County, I took one step in the building and I was hooked. Now, three years later I have my own first grade class of 16 children with and without disabilities, and it’s me that’s learning the real lessons. In their own ways, each child teaches courage, commitment, perseverance, happiness and more.
I’m not the only one learning lessons. They teach each other too. In a classroom where children with and without disabilities are educated together, there is so much to learn. These lessons are subtle and have an even bigger and lasting effect. My students without any disabilities come to school every day with children in wheelchairs, walkers, quad canes or maybe those who just don’t learn the same way as their peers. Children with all abilities are side by side learning, growing and embracing differences. So when they are sitting across the conference room when they are in their twenties, differences won’t matter. The only thing that will matter is how they are going to work together to get the job done.
It is for these reasons that I drive an hour and a half every day with Michael by my side, but I don’t travel this road alone. My sister-in-law, April, Michael’s mom, drives an hour and a half to UCP’s administration offices in downtown Orlando where she works as a compliance control specialist. My sister, Cheryl Hines, who you might know for her role in the ABC hit Suburgatory, travels a more national road as an advocate for children with special needs. In addition to being one of UCP’s biggest celebrity supporters, she also serves on UCP’s National Board of Trustees carrying the message globally.
So you might think that Michael and all the students at UCP are the ones learning so much during their school days, but I beg to differ. Yes, Michael and all 2,400 of the children who attend UCP’s six campuses are growing by leaps and bounds, learning how to be more independent every day, but it’s my family and I who are really are learning from Michael and each of the wonderful children with and without disabilities. Our travels on the road from Lake County into Orlando are certainly long, but just a drop in the bucket compared to what we are learning along the way.
By Mike Hines