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Young readers learn value of collaboration as friends help a skunk find his stink

By ROGER MOONEY

It’s a sad day for a skunk who loses his stink, especially when the skunk is the sheriff, and his stink is his way of keeping the locals in line.

Ah, but that is the plight of Señor Olor.

The coauthors hope this is the first in a series of books that teach social emotional learning lessons to children pre-K to second grade.

When Bandido the raccoon is seen robbing the grocery store, the sheriff arrives to save the day.

“Put your paws up, or I’ll spray,” shouts the sheriff.

Bring it on, says Bandido.

The sheriff spins, raises his tail and …

¡Nada!

“What’s wrong, Señor? Cat got your stink?” shouts Bandido, as he makes off with his ill-gotten booty.

So begins the tale of Señor Olor, the hero of “The Skunk Who Lost His Stink.”

Published in late-December of 2018, the children’s book aimed at readers pre-K-to-second grade, was coauthored by Jessica Sergiacomi and Jacquelyn Covert, both 32.

Sergiacomi taught first grade at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a K-5 school that accepts Step Up For Students scholarships. (Beginning in August, Sergiacomi will teach third grade at Miami Country Day School in Miami Shores.) She received the Exceptional Teacher Award in February at the Rising Stars Event, hosted by Step Up.

“She’s so creative,” said Emily Ashworth, whose son Wesley is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and attends Miami Shores Presbyterian on a Gardiner Scholarship, administered by Step Up.

So is Covert, who attended The Benjamin School in Palm Beach and is now a Realtor living with her family in Charleston, S.C.

The two became friends in 2005 during move-in day of their freshman year at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

They began writing books together during their junior year and have written close to 15. All are children’s books with a strong message.

“The Skunk Who Lost His Stink” is the first to be self-published.

The idea, Sergiacomi said, came from her dad.

“It was a few years ago, and my dad said, ‘Baby skunks don’t spray.’ I thought, ‘Oh, that would be a cool title, ‘The Skunk Who Lost His Stink,’ and it went from there,” Sergiacomi said.

It took them an hour to write the first draft.

“We cracked up the whole time,” Covert said.

That’s because they mix humor with a storyline of collaboration.

“Having friends who help. Having friends by your side,” Sergiacomi said.

Ivanna the Iguana, Aramis Dillo the armadillo, and Quill the porcupine join Señor Olor as he journeys to meet the wise grey wolf.

They believe wise grey wolf will help the sheriff find his stink.

Spoiler alert: She does.

She suddenly howls and scares the, um, stink out of the sheriff.

The coauthors: Jackie Covert and Jessica Sergiacomi

That part causes quite the stir when Sergiacomi and Covert read their book to children at schools and libraries.

“We do get a lot of giggles,” Covert said.

The children howl along with the wise grey wolf, and Sergiacomi, dressed in a skunk costume she bought on Amazon, pretends to find her stink.

“This is why (Sergiacomi is) so great,” Ashworth said. “She really gets into the minds of these kids and figures them out. It’s the perfect lower-elementary school level humor, and they think it’s hilarious.”

But there is more to “The Skunk Who Lost His Stink” than some potty humor.

Sergiacomi wants to learn Spanish, so she and Covert sprinkled Spanish words throughout the book.

Señor Olor translates to Mr. Stink.

The Bandido (bandit) robs La Basura (the trash), which is the local grocery store. The characters live in El Pueblo de Animales (The Village of the Animals).

To give their young female readers a strong female character, the coauthors made the wise grey wolf a female.

There is also a social emotional learning (SEL) theme to the book. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines social emotional learning as the process where students learn how to manage and understand emotions, act responsibly, maintain positive relationships, achieve goals and display empathy.

Patricia Handly, the former curriculum director at Miami Shores Presbyterian, taught Sergiacomi how to teach social emotional learning.

“It’s really the key,” Sergiacomi said. “It’s a big part of my motivation for teaching. I feel very passionate about SEL, and I incorporate it in my daily lessons. I am the teacher I am today because of (Handly).”

Sergiacomi dresses like the hero of her book when visiting schools and libraries for readings.

While it took Sergiacomi and Covert an hour to write the story, it took them nearly four years to get it published. The biggest piece was finding an illustrator. They used Richard Kenyon, Sergiacomi’s friend from elementary school.

The two authors are already working on a sequel with an anti-violence theme.

“We’ll find out the raccoon is not so bad at all,” Sergiacomi said. “He’s stealing food to feed his cousins. Everyone has a little good in them. He’s trying to help his friends.”

There is talk of a prequel, a story of how Señor Olor became sheriff. If you pay close attention to the illustrations on the first page of the text, you’ll notice photos hanging on the wall of Señor Olor’s home of the sheriffs in his family. One is a female.

Señora Olor?

“These are just ideas floating around,” Sergiacomi said.

The coauthors want to continue this series before moving on to some of their other unpublished works.

“It’s a start,” Sergiacomi said. “The goal is to have a whole bunch of these books with social emotional learning themes.”

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

Wesley Hamilton: Another Bill Gates?

 

By GEOFF FOX

Wesley Hamilton, a curious, curly-haired six-year-old was blessed with a high IQ.

Wesley Hamilton, 6, is thriving at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a private school he attends through help from the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs.

When he was 3, a preschool teacher asked his class to say words that started with “a.” While many of his classmates answered “apple” or “ant,” Wesley said, “actually.”

He started having some uncommon struggles at a young age, said his mother, Emily Ashworth Hamilton, chief technology officer with ABB Optical Group in Coral Springs.

He didn’t like having his fingernails clipped.

He wouldn’t touch things with his hands, including food.

He stopped making eye contact with other people.

He had trouble sleeping, and when he did sleep, he often had nightmares.

He also would overreact to “the simplest things,” said Ashworth Hamilton, who lives in Miami with Wesley, her 2-year-old daughter Holly and husband Bill Hamilton, a mobile software architect with AT&T.

Wesley is a devoted brother to younger sister Holly. Here, they are pictured on a recent trip to Lookout Mountain in North Carolina.

“He would have kind of the classic 2-year-old temper tantrum, but they never ended,” she said. “Not only in the moment, but they’d just never stop. His language was sort of odd, too, but he was incredibly verbal. His sentences were very deliberate, but the words he used were huge.”

In April 2015, Wesley was diagnosed as being on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum.

Ashworth Hamilton eventually applied for and received a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The state-funded scholarship is for students between 3 and 22 and who have disabilities including: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Spina bifida and other impairments.

The scholarship allows parents to personalize their child’s education by directing money toward schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum and technology, as well as a college savings account.

Last year, Wesley’s family used the scholarship to help pay for Applied Behavior Analysis therapy through Optimum Behavioral Services in Sunrise. Ashworth Hamilton said the therapy is not covered by her insurance.

Much of Wesley’s first year of therapy was not spent in a school or social setting, but “in a clinical environment,” she said.

“It could pertain to playing with others appropriately, or in a classroom, or following the instructions of a parent or adult in charge – how to react appropriately in certain situations,” Ashworth Hamilton said.

“(Children on the autism spectrum) have to be explicitly taught. They can’t simply observe or follow other people’s leads.”

Blanca Onetto, clinical director at Optimum Behavioral Services, where Wesley is a patient, said therapists quickly realized Wesley was very bright, with an enthusiasm for learning and a healthy sense of humor.

She said he enjoys music – particularly Queen’s classic rock hit, “We Will Rock You” – using his iPad, building with blocks, and playing with toy airplanes, cars and construction materials.

However, Onetto said, Wesley had difficulty communicating “across multiple contexts,” such as “social-emotional reciprocity,” non-verbal communication used in social interaction, and developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.

Sometimes, Onetto said, he threw the tantrums his mother described, displayed physical aggression and had anxiety issues.

Wesley has added fishing to his long list of interests, which also include using his iPad, building with blocks, and playing with toy airplanes, cars and construction materials.

Peer training, positive reinforcement and “naturalistic-incidental teaching” at the center has helped improve his conversational skills, while therapies to assist with shyness and impatience have included participation in a social skills group that features role playing.

To address tantrums and aggression, the center has used therapies that “decrease Wesley’s inappropriate behaviors by replacing them with appropriate ones,” Onetto said.

“Our goal is to teach Wesley appropriate social interactions, which at the same time would help to develop many other skills, including listening, attention, reading body language and social references,” she said. “He has shown considerable progress on all his treatment goals, but we will continue working on achieving higher standards.”

Onetto’s team of therapists have accompanied Wesley to school, thanks to Gardiner. This has helped Wesley transition into an academic environment and a mainstream classroom successfully with the support he needs.

Ashworth Hamilton said she did not want Wesley to go to his neighborhood elementary school, where, thanks to his high IQ, he would likely have been mainstreamed into a large class with a teacher who may not have experience handling students with special needs.

Through the Gardiner Scholarship, Wesley attends Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a kindergarten- through fifth-grade private school with a preschool program. He is now in first grade.

Ashworth Hamilton said she’s now optimistic Wesley will be better able to manage his anxieties, focus on tasks and increase his “functional capabilities.” His successful integration into a mainstream classroom is due to the partnership at school between parents, teachers and therapists and is building a strong foundation for Wesley.

“The goal is to build him up so the support needed will decrease over time,” his mother said. “I think he will continue to need a learning environment that is very much able to have some flexibility with his learning style; he’s very visual and has lots of sensory stimuli to contend with.”

Onetto is also impressed.

Because Wesley is high-functioning, Onetto said she doesn’t see any reason why he won’t be able to someday live independently and lead a fulfilling life.

“Each individual with autism is unique,” she said. “Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music, and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above-average intellectual abilities. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and atypical ways of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently.

“With the appropriate support, (Wesley) will be a productive and successful citizen – maybe another Bill Gates!”

Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org.