As the bell rings for fourth period to begin, a surge of students rush the sign-in table outside the Community of Caring classroom at Olympus High School. After they’ve dutifully checked their name, claiming attendance, they’re off to either do community service or to take a nap. However, there is one group of student volunteers commonly found grabbing as many people as possible, running to their carpools, and taking off down 39th South, fueled by childish excitement.
This group is going to Hartvigsen School, a specialty school in Granite School District for mentally and physically handicapped students. Here, they’ll work with special-needs people ranging from age 6 to 22 with a variety of activities and forming lifelong friendships. However, some are especially privileged to work with a new, groundbreaking program called EagleEyes.
EagleEyes is a software program created by Professor James Gips of Boston College in 1995 and has since changed the lives of thousands of special needs children and adults around the world. This system is especially tailored toward those who are severely handicapped, and in most cases cannot willfully control any part of the body except for the eyes. Volunteers are trained to carefully attach sensors around the eyes, which are sensitive enough to pick up the slight muscle impulses given off when one moves his or her eye. This reading is then translated on screen, giving the student total control of the mouse.
Most students using EagleEyes begin with simple target games, which are meant to teach them cause and effect. This concept is extremely difficult to teach to severely handicapped children because it is a lesson best learned hands on and was nearly impossible before EagleEyes was introduced to the public in 2004. After the student has mastered the target games, they advance to identification and counting activities, and soon after that, he or she is skilled enough to type out their own messages.
Although this seems simple, to the students using EagleEyes it is absolutely liberating. In most cases, these children have spent their entire lives without the ability to speak or even to communicate beyond a simple “yes-no” command. This communication gap hinders teachers from accurately judging the skill level of most students. However, with the introduction of this new program, volunteers and administrators alike are amazed at the sheer intelligence and creativity of the children society would instantly write off as “challenged.”
When students from Olympus aren’t working on EagleEyes they work with the higher functioning portion of the school. Here, students will do drills with identification, diction, and motor skills with their volunteers. Like EagleEyes, friendships have quickly formed between partnerships, with some amazing results. For example, Dayna Morris– a senior at Olympus– was paired with a boy with severe autism who would rarely speak even to teachers he’d known for months. After a few weeks of working with this boy, however, their friendship grew to the point where he started talking, and Dayna was there to listen in earnest. Megan Jones, a junior, had a similar experience with her student: although Megan was working with a higher functioning girl, she still a hard time identifying spoken emotion with the illustrated faces on a paper. After several weeks with little progress, Megan decided to take a more creative route– remembering their mutual love of Taylor Swift, Megan brought in her iPod the next session and asked her student to point to the angry illustration every time Taylor said the word “mean” in the song “Mean”, and the other emotions mentioned in the lyrics. The results were astounding as her partner executed the drill perfectly, smiling and singing along.
Just as the lives of the students at Hartvigsen School have been changed forever, so have the volunteers from Olympus High. Going in, most students identified as being uncomfortable around handicapped people. After one day at Hartvigsen, though, not a single face was seen without a smile and were thrilled to have the opportunity to return later in the week. Directors have noticed the program is also very therapeutic for teens: after a long day of feeling insignificant, unwanted, and depressed, volunteers can immerse themselves around always-happy, ever-excited faces and are reminded of their many blessings and what they have to offer to the world. Plans for the future have also been positively affected due to service at the school. Bryan Jolley, a senior at Olympus, plans to volunteer even after the class ends, and hopes to apply for a job at Hartvigsen School in the near future. Emily Hoffman, another senior, says “I’ve [always wanted] to be a teacher and before this I wasn’t sure what I wanted to teach, [but] now I know I want to work with these kids.”
Friendships between student and volunteer have been flourishing since day one. Debbie Inkley, the co-director of EagleEyes at Hartvigsen School, said in a presentation that this not only gives these special needs children the opportunity to learn and to grow, but also to interact with kids their age. It’s common for these handicapped children to feel coddled by the adults in their lives and ignored by their age-group, but between literacy and EagleEyes, they get the opportunity to hang out with their peers, and truly feel accepted. Sarah Demers, a junior, says “When you take away a key element in communication, you become even closer than anyone could imagine. My favorite part is the new friendships. Especially with Chandler and Crystal, the kids I work with the most. The feel of friendship is so strong with them that I’m not sure it could ever been reciprocated in a ‘normal’ relationship.”
Hartvigsen School began as an obligation, but grew into a privilege. All those involved in the program– whether it’s EagleEyes or Literacy class– agree they’ve experienced something utterly life-changing and beautiful, and all hope to continue working in the future. “Being able to see the delight in those kids’ eyes when you [just] hold their hand or smile at them is the best feeling ever,” says Demmers, “When you learn a real connection, that’s something you can never forget.”