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Tripping the light fantastic while building confidence in the ballroom

Gardiner students learn to tango and much more

By ROGER MOONEY

SARASOTA, Florida – Sarah Parkerson has her left hand on Jordan Soriano’s shoulder. Jordan’s right hand rests on the small of his partner’s back. Their other hands are entwined as they move across the dance floor.

Sometimes it’s a waltz. One, two, three. One, two, three.

Other times, a tango. Slow, Slow. Quick, quick, slow.  

Or the foxtrot. Slow, slow, quick, quick. Slow, slow, quick, quick.

But for Sarah, it doesn’t matter which dance they are doing, or if 100 people are looking on. She is in her own world. She is moved by the music and follows Jordan’s lead.

“I really feel like I don’t see the people (watching),” she said. “It’s just me, my partner, the music. It’s just really amazing.”

Sarah, 15, and Jordan, 20, are both on the autism spectrum. Both receive the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs, managed by Step Up For Students.

Sarah, who lives in Sarasota, and Jordan, who lives in nearby Ellenton, train at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota under Sarah Lototskyy.

Jordan Soriano and Sarah Parkerson are two of the Gardiner students participating in Dynasty Dance Club’s Dynasty Stars program.

Sarah and Jordan met there two years ago when she joined the studio’s Dynasty Stars program after moving from Alabama with her mom. Though she danced at a ballet studio in Alabama, Sarah arrived at the new dance club as a shy teenager with little confidence. Her mother, Cathy Parkerson, said Sarah kept to herself, standing with her hands clasped and her head down while avoiding eye contact.

Now Sarah is poised and smiles as she looks into her dance partner’s eyes. The progress has surprised even Sarah.

“Before I was very unconfident. I didn’t really move much at all,” she said. “Once I started dancing, I felt better. I felt happier. I had more confidence.”

When asked what she likes most about ballroom dancing, Sarah thought for a few moments, then answered, “Basically everything.”

The Stars are born

Dynasty Stars was born in January 2016 when Lototskyy noticed the brother of one of her students bopping to the music while he watched his sister dance. The boy’s name is Michael, and he has Down syndrome. Lototskyy asked Michael if he wanted to dance. He said yes, and they danced for 10 minutes.

Lototskyy decided to start a program for those with special needs. The first class consisted of a man with autism, a young girl with epilepsy and Michael.

Soon after, Colleen Buccieri, who runs the nonprofit Face Autism and is Jordan Soriano’s godmother and caregiver, learned of the new program. Buccieri told Lototskyy she would bring some children who are on the spectrum to the next class.

By the end of the first month, Dynasty Stars had 20 students. It has grown steadily ever since. Through her Dynasty Dance Club Studios in Sarasota, Venice and Lakewood Ranch (she will soon open a studio in St. Petersburg) and the schools where she teaches, Lototskyy estimates she teaches 150 special needs dancers, ranging in age from 3 to 54.

Nine students attend the Dynasty Stars class that meets in Sarasota on Tuesdays and Fridays. Five of those dancers, including Sarah and Jordan, receive the Gardiner Scholarship. The scholarship does cover the dance lessons. For Sarah and Jordan, the dance instructions are covered through Gardiner to help them with music education, socialization and memory skills.

“What’s been so great about Gardiner is students have been able to explore this side of themselves,” Lototskyy said. “With all of the therapies, it’s nice for them to have a mentally and physically stimulating activity to do.”

Why can’t they?

Jordan was 9 when Buccieri started Face Autism to provide sensory friendly activities, support groups and more for children on the spectrum and their families. As Jordan’s godmother, Buccieri watched him grow up without going to the movies or the mall or to children’s birthday parties. She formed the nonprofit and with the help of volunteers, organized autism-appropriate activities and classes, asking questions that always began with the same three words: “Why can’t they …?

Why can’t they go fishing?

Why can’t they go golfing?

Why can’t they go horseback riding?

As soon as she learned of Lototskyy’s new dance class, Buccieri asked, “Why can’t they go ballroom dancing?”

Lototskyy has been teaching dance for 12 years. She said anyone can learn. Jordan, who was in the first group that Buccieri brought to the new class, is proving his teacher right.

“He was all left feet,” Buccieri said. “Unfocused. He was a mess. And now he’s really, really good and he loves it. He feels it’s something that he himself has accomplished.”

Jordan is progressing though the levels of ballroom dancing. He has shelves in his home filled with more than 25 trophies earned at dance competitions.

“I love to dance, because it’s fun and it’s challenging, and I get to see my friends,” he said.

The many trophies Jordan has won for ballroom dancing.

Like Sarah Parkerson, Jordan was shy and avoided eye contact when he first walked through the doors of the dance studio. But that changed. It had to. Ballroom dancing requires the male to escort his partner to the dance floor, to look into her eyes and lead her through the steps.

“The main thing is the confidence to get out there on a big ballroom floor, and they can really overcome their sensitivities, because you have the bright lights, the loud music. You have the crowd. They’re out on that big ballroom floor, looking into the eyes of a hundred or more spectators just staring at them,” Buccieri said. “It’s sometimes a little overwhelming, but they seem to get into that music and that all goes away.”

At the beginning, Buccieri thought dancing would be like any other activity sponsored by Face Autism. She hoped the kids could dance for an hour a week, get some exercise, maybe make a friend or two and go home. Never did she dream Jordan and the others in the program would develop into competitive ballroom dancers with their own routines and trophies earned around the Southeast.  

“I never thought Sarah would take it to the level she has,” Buccieri said. “Now she’s well-known in the dance world for her special needs program. There’s nothing like it around.”

Take a bow

Lototskyy, who owns her dance studios with her husband, Maks, has been dancing for 27 years. She thought of becoming a special education teacher while in high school before her dancing career took off. She said teaching the Dynasty Stars students is her favorite class of the week.

Recently, Lototskyy sat with a visitor to a Dynasty Stars class.

“Do you know how to do any of these things?” she asked, motioning to the students who were dancing a salsa.

One, two, three. (Pause.) Five, six, seven. (Pause.)

The answer was no.

“So,” she said, “you can imagine how difficult it is to just (learn one move) with everything else they are facing. So, the fact that they can go out there and perform at a high level and pick music, that gives them confidence.”

Sarah and Jordan practice with dance coach Sarah Lototskyy at the Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.

Confidence is the word used most often when talking about the benefits of ballroom dancing to someone on the spectrum.

Cathy Parkerson, Sarah’s mom, said her daughter receives that and more.

“So much more,” she said. “The interaction is amazing because there are so many skills they are doing. Socially, they have to listen with other people, interact, work with a partner. They have to think, ‘What does my partner need from me? What do I have to do?’ Thinking of someone else is a really good skill, especially for someone with autism. They are kind of sometimes in their own world.”

Being in their own world is what ballroom dancing provides. Each dance has its own personality, Lototskyy said. The tango is passionate, dramatic, aggressive. The foxtrot is sassy and playful.

“The waltz is more elegant and more dreamy, more like Prince Charming and Cinderella,” she said. “They get to feel that way even if when they leave here, they have seizures and take so many medications that they don’t feel like Cinderella or Prince Charming. But they do when they’re here.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Student Spotlight: Kamelia Martin was a girl without hope

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedBY GEOFF FOX

Kamelia "Kami" Martin pictured here the day she left the orphanage in Bulgaria in 2014.

Kamelia “Kami” Martin pictured here the day she left the orphanage in Bulgaria in 2014.

Nine years ago, Kamelia Martin was born perfectly healthy in Bulgaria. Yet, her adoptive mother, Christen Martin, said for years she was given a regimen of anti-seizure medication, tranquilizers and sedatives.

The circumstances made for a tough, turbulent adjustment after Martin and her husband, Mason Martin, adopted Kamelia two years ago.

“When an infant comes into the orphanage, they’re put in an isolation room where they learn their cries won’t get any attention,” Christen Martin said. “After they don’t cry, they get to come in the room with other children.

“They are treated like animals. They never experience the love of a father or mother. They’re put into a (drug-induced) stupor so they’ll be quiet and compliant.”

For Kamelia, the results were horrific.

By the time Martin and her husband, Mason Martin, adopted her from the orphange, she was diagnosed with institutional autism and her IQ was measured at 35, the low threshold for moderate intellectual disability.

Because she had been malnourished for so long, Kamelia’s head was too small for her body and her ankles were weak and misshapen; she could not walk until she was 3. When the Martins brought her home to Louisiana, where Mason Martin was stationed with the U.S. Air Force, she could hardly communicate or speak, even in Bulgarian.

None of that deterred the Martins, who had three young children of their own when they decided to adopt Kamelia, who they often call “Kami.” Christen Martin said the couple knew since they got married that “God was calling us to adopt.”

“It was a divine sequence of events,” Christen Martin said. “The Lord just weighed Bulgaria on my heart.”

When the Martins first saw a photo of Kamelia, they saw a small, scared, lonely-looking girl. The photo weighed on them. They knew they wanted to help.

“When we pulled her file to find out more about her, we discovered she was born on Mason’s birthday the year of our marriage,” Christen Martin said. “Many little details like this worked together to encourage us each step of the way that our family was right for Kami.”

After an adoption process that took the Martins several months and a couple of trips to Bulgaria, Kami came to live with them in 2014. The transition from living in a cold, unloving Bulgarian orphanage to life in an American home with parents and siblings was turbulent for both Kami and her new family, including brothers Ezekiel, 7, and Isaiah, 3, and sister Eden, 5.

At the time, Kami was 7. She didn’t know how to play and could barely communicate. And, after years of being administered unneeded medication, she endured withdrawal from the drugs when she came to live with the Martins.

“The Bulgarian orphanage staff gave us prescriptions for medications they truly believed she needed,” Christen Martin said. “We consulted with a Bulgarian psychiatrist and she encouraged us to get her off them gradually. The withdrawal was definitely intense. There was so much outrageous behavior already that we didn’t know what were withdrawal symptoms.

“There was a lot of screaming, thrashing, rolling, clawing and biting. She wasn’t given any tools for healthy or normal communication. If she was disappointed, she’d drop to the ground and roll, scream and writhe. She was definitely just driven by instincts every moment and ruled by them without self-control. What happens to a person when they’re never given any love is tragic.”

The Martins tried to brace their biological children for the ordeal.

“They responded amazingly. We prayed for her together,” Christen Martin said. “When the other kids witnessed the screaming and scary behavior, they were nervous and afraid and it was hard, but the other children learned from an early age about loving others and how truly ugly child abandonment is; it’s one of the worst things in the world. They realize this is why you have a family. We all need it. I think they’ve taught Kami more than Mason and I could. They taught her how to play and be a child.”

In 2015, the Martins moved to Orlando. By then, Mason Martin was out of the Air Force and working for Wycliffe Bible Translators, which focuses on translating the Bible into hundreds of languages.

Christen Martin homeschools her children, but she needed help with Kami. In Orlando, the family learned about the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

Kamelia "Kami" Martin was adopted by Mason and Christen Martin two years ago and now lives in Orlando. She is making great strides as part of their family and a Gardiner scholar.

Kamelia “Kami” Martin was adopted by Mason and Christen Martin two years ago and now lives in Orlando. She is making great strides as part of their family and as a Gardiner scholar.

The Martins applied for the scholarship and Kami was accepted, due to her intellectual disability. They used the scholarship to hire Kathy Wood, an occupational therapist who has worked with Kami twice a week for about a year.

It was slow going, at first.

“I do in-home therapy and I met her with her family around her,” Wood said. “It’s nice to have that advantage because sometimes a clinic can add a whole level of distance. That said, Kami was very difficult to engage. I hate to say she was a feral child, but that’s a clear view of what it felt like. She had not had a lot of human contact.

“When she first arrived, there was still a lot of no eye contact and she would not tolerate being touched at all. She would not engage me in any way. She would turn her back on me and would not include me in her space – like an animal might do to protect itself or home.”

But Wood showed up consistently and slowly earned Kami’s trust. After a few weeks, Kami allowed Wood to perform reflex techniques that help train her body to adjust to life outside of a crib.

“We do basic exercises,” Wood said. “On her feet, I stimulate the tendons to increase walking ability, coordination and balance, even her emotions. I do cross-body reflexes, where you stimulate the bottom left foot and raise the right leg, cross it over the body and back down. Then, we do the other leg. You work both halves of the brain that way. It increases coordination and motor control.”

Kami has been speaking more lately, but there is much progress yet to be made. The family uses most of the scholarship money for occupational therapy, but it has also covered a trip to a pediatric eye doctor.

“She’s probably not very clear if you don’t know what she’s trying to say. Her thoughts are jumbled and she’s trying to figure out how to say things,” Wood said. “I’ve learned her language a little bit. The other day, she was telling me about a trip to the playground. She said, ‘Miss Kathy, swing at the playground, tic-tack, tic-tack, tic-tack.’ She was telling me about the trip to the playground and how she heard the swing going up and down.

“She’s wired differently than you and I; she is very in tune to sounds. She learned in that crib what was safe and not safe by sound. Her senses of sound, hearing and touch are all heightened because she didn’t get proper development.”

Simply being around the Martins has been crucial to Kami’s development, Wood said.

“Four or five months ago, I saw her imitating and playing pretend for the first time. She put a baby doll to bed with a blanket – it was appropriate play,” Wood said. “She had been playing with her sister and her sister taught her that. She wasn’t hitting the baby against the wall, it was very appropriate. She could mimic a loving gesture. She has the ability to understand sequence. That shows me she has tremendous ability to grow and thrive in many ways.

“I’m really excited for her potential. Last week, she looked at me, smiled warmly and said ‘Miss Kathy.’ We were playing a silly little game, but she connected with me in a genuine way.”

Mason Martin said he is encouraged by the progress Kami has made since she joined the family two years ago, but he understands there is still a lot of work to do. Like most parents, he wants his children to become happy, productive, self-sufficient adults.

“It’s been a lot of work for her and she’s never really been made to do that work before,” he said. “She needs somebody to spend time with her. It’s been exciting and a lot of difficult challenges on the way – some days more than others. The best way to describe it is she’s very resilient. As long as we don’t give up on her, she won’t give up.  … She really needed somebody who wouldn’t give up on her. It’s been amazing to see.”

Christen Martin said Kami is on about the same social level as a preschooler, but is learning how to act appropriately around people. Academically, she has progressed a bit further.

“She longs for connection, but it takes time to understand how to relate to others in proper ways,” Christen Martin said. “She is in the pre-writing stage; she knows her colors, shapes, some animals and everyday objects. She’s working on forming letters and learning their sounds, and we do believe she will learn to read and write. We just don’t know what the timetable will look like.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

Kurnik: ‘We homeschool because it is the best situation for our special needs child’

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as an article in the 2015 Back to Homeschool issue of the FPEA Connect magazine. Used by permission of the FPEA

By Mary Kurnik, Guest Blogger

We did not plan to homeschool. I definitely enjoy being home with our children, especially since my husband and I weren’t even sure we would become parents.

Through the blessing of adoption, we became parents to our daughter and, 21 months later, to our son who has autism. Thankfully, we began homeschooling when Krystyn was four years old. We figured this way, we could “try it out” for a year and send her to kindergarten if the experiment failed.

The Kurnik family, Krystyn, Libby the Lab, Mary, John and John.

The Kurnik family, Krystyn, Libby the Lab, Mary, John and John.

John was two years old at the time. He did well with Five in a Row, a literature-based, unit study approach. We all snuggled on the couch while I read our story for the day. If John chose, he could sit on the floor and keep busy with various shoeboxes filled with his “school things.” For the most part, though, he wanted to be a part of every aspect of our homeschool day, right along with his big sister. All the years of Five in a Row provided a solid foundation for a well-rounded child and built strength in reading and language arts.

An environment of family togetherness, safety and comfort at home, and learning at his own pace, have served John well. In the early years, our homeschool days consisted of many trips to the library to choose books, take part in its organized programs, and star in its theater. We went to parks and the YMCA. We belonged to MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) and a Thursday social group. We took trips to the museums, the zoo, the Florida Aquarium, and Busch Gardens. We visited many businesses to get a backstage tour in order to learn about their operations and the necessity of a practical education. We toured Tampa International Airport, fire departments, even the Coast Guard. All of these opportunities were facilitated in a small, manageable group, with Mom’s watchful eye, giving birth to independence and confidence for John.

I can’t emphasize enough how important the flexibility has been. If John is restless, he can play basketball in our driveway in between subjects or throw the ball in the backyard to our

rambunctious, loveable lab, Libby. We school year round, so if family comes in town or an event comes up, we can take advantage of that opportunity. For John’s therapy appointments, professionals are more accessible to us during the morning or early afternoon, rather than after-school hours. If John needs more time learning long division, it’s not a problem. If we need to revisit a concept in a particular subject six months from now, when he can grasp it better, no worries.

Every day is a learning opportunity at home and out in the world. Life skills are essential for John, and my husband and I endeavor to teach him more than academics. John is learning to change the oil in Dad’s truck, shop at home improvement stores, do yardwork, fix and maintain things at home, learn the value of money – all with Dad’s guidance. Mom, on the other hand, does something John calls “Mom’s Scenarios.” This is when a teachable moment comes along, no matter where we happen to be, and I run by certain scenarios with John – all the while keeping a sense of humor if warranted, or a serious tone if not. John often needs a further explanation of what is happening around him, and we are able to take the time to explain as much as he needs.

Homeschooling also allows John to be with children and adults of all ages. He is not limited to his same-aged peer group. This has been beneficial in that he is able to get along with children during his class at co-op and is also able to be best buddies with the younger set. They look up to him, and I believe John’s life is enhanced by being a role model. Learning at home allows us to build on John’s strengths and work on his weaknesses in a way that is designed for him alone.

More recently, John’s home education has been strengthened by a new state program created last year.  The Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, or PLSA as it is better known, provides state funds to parents of special needs children that can be used for a wide range of education-related expenses. That includes private school tuition, tutoring, instructional materials, technological devices and specialized therapies from approved providers.

The amount of the PLSA varies based on the student’s disability and what county he or she lives in, but it averages about $10,000 per year. Funds that aren’t used in one year can be rolled over to the next year. They can also be used for contributions to an approved prepaid college program. As I told the The Tampa Tribune last year, “It’s hard to put into words what it means to us.  It’s a gift that was dropped from heaven.”

It’s not just that the PLSA offers funding that can make a real difference for John. It also comes with the kind of flexibility and parental authority that makes sense to home school parents, and to parents, period. It allows parents, not anyone else, to determine what mix of educational programs and services are best for their child.

Right now, we are using the PLSA to help pay for therapy to help John with an auditory processing disorder, along with books, and handwriting and keyboarding programs. We also plan to add, among other things, intensive math skills practice online, materials for robotics, a musical instrument, and a tablet so John can access specialized apps for students with autism. (For anyone who wants more information about PLSAs, contact Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps administer the program, at PLSA@sufs.org or 1-877-735-7837.)

Educational choice is a precious freedom, and I am grateful to be Krystyn and John’s Mom first and teacher second. Sometimes the best things in life are not planned after all.

Mary Kurnik is wife to John and has a bachelor’s degree in English education.  Her passions are homeschooling, special needs, adoption and horses.  She gives all glory to God for His master plan.  Contact her at maryedchoice@gmail.com.