While the topic of anti-bullying and tolerance has been a hot button issue in New Jersey recently, South Brunswick schools have long focused attention on celebrating our differences through an annual uniqueness program. For over a decade, various schools in the district have held "Celebrating Uniqueness," a program that brings in speakers with different disabilities to talk with students.
"The kids realize through this program that people with different disabilities are just like them and it helps us celebrate each other for our differences," said Indian Fields second grade teacher Tatjana Policastro. "We have speakers who are in wheelchairs, speakers with cerebral palsy, but we also have those with disabilities that you can't see like diabetes, asthma and different learning disabilities. It helps kids understand what it means to be different and it helps them empathize."
has run the "Celebrating Uniqueness" program for the last 8 years, while also tying in lessons about understanding and tolerance into the curriculum by studying books involving characters with disabilities to overcome.
"We include curriculum-based activities where the students learn about empathy through the various disabilities," said Indian Fields Student Assistance Counselor Amy Bertelsen-Robles. "The bottom line is that everybody is unique, it's a part of who we are. We all have goals that we have to achieve in different ways. This program levels the playing field and shows the kids that being unique is a positive thing. We just need to take the time to get to know each other."
Through interaction with the guest speakers students learn about the similarities they share, such as one speaker in a wheelchair who showed the students how she dances in her chair.
"We also have one speaker who is younger and has cerebral palsy and he loves video games, so he totally connects with the kids," Bertelsen-Robles said. "The first thing they notice when he comes in are his braces, but after talking to him they see him as a person first."
The life lessons also tie in to the teaching of the South Brunswick School District's five core values: Honesty, Respect, Kindness, Service and Responsibility.
"This is a program that supports the character development concepts that we teach the kids," said Indian Fields School Psychologist Natalie Brent. "These lessons combine to lead to appropriate character development."
By conducting exercises that demystify people with different disabilities in a classroom, the students are more comfortable asking questions they may be fearful of in a different setting.
"It helps the kids feel safe and share some of the things that makes them different," Policastro said. "We're all different in some way, and if you build that up it gives the kids a sense of safety that it’s okay to share and not be laughed at. They embrace these differences as a positive thing."
Students also list some of the things that makes them unique, including one student who shared that he has a mole on his toe and a young girl who said her older sister has diabetes.
"She said I take care of my big sister and that's unique because most big sisters take care of their little sisters," Bertelsen-Robles said. "That shows us that they're understanding and it's evident."
The staff at Indian Fields said they've heard from parents and former students about the impact “Celebrating Uniqueness” has had on their lives and the way they interact with others.
"The kids become more aware of their social surroundings and that it's not okay to stare and point at people with disabilities," Policastro said. "Rather, they ask questions and that opens a door."
The annual program has been allowed to thrive by the volunteers who come in and sacrifice a day of work to speak with the kids about how disabilities have affected them.
"They give up their own time to come in and open the kids' eyes that they have a heart inside and that's what really matters," Bertelsen-Robles said. "The great thing is how supportive the Board of Education and district administration has been for this. They attend the sessions and sometimes moderate them. That helps keep this going because it trickles down that this is something we take seriously."