The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the School.
Our emphasis at Milton Hershey School this year will be to teach empathy. Assuming it is not a genetic trait, this will be up to the parent, extended family and friends. MHS, as a residential school, assumes the temporary role of parent to the children it supports. We need to flood our students with lessons in which empathy is not only shown, but embraced and practiced through the use of community service projects and other kindnesses that come from within each human being. Empathy is as essential as air.
How can one teach empathy to children who have special needs? Last week at work, someone stole from my autistic son. Greg is now 28 and works in a protected environment, but that didn't stop someone from taking his supplies out of his backpack and stealing the backpack. This is not the first time someone has targeted Greg. Last year at a dance, Greg's aides left him for a moment with his room mates all dressed to go out into the cold, and when they came back, they discovered that someone had taken Greg's winter coat....right off his back! Greg is a pacifist, he does what he is told and he is unable to speak to tell someone what happened. The thief knew this about my son. Greg doesn't even comprehend the word, "steal". Empathy must be taught to the ones who know what stealing is. A parent cannot protect the child every moment of his/her life. It remains for people to take charge of their own behaviors AND DO THE RIGHT THING.
At our back to school assembly, I heard a quote that went something like this: "No parent would be comfortable not knowing about their child on a day to day basis." Well, parents of special children are encouraged to give up control, but with what result? We have to trust others to protect our children since empathy is in short supply lately. We callously take someone's coat for our own comfort and need, leaving another human being, a special one, to brave the extremes of this past winter. We take a backpack from a child who needs to keep his things in order. Believe me, Greg pitched a fit when he discovered that his backpack was "missing". I love that Greg doesn't know what stealing is because he will never steal. However, how can his care providers settle him down when one of his possessions goes missing? This incident did not go without trauma to all involved. Greg doesn't need this kind of emotional trauma. Believe me, he suffers enough already living with the challenges of autism.
Empathy needs to be taught in our classrooms, in ALL of our classrooms. Milton Hershey School is right about that. We have to provide our children with examples of selfless service to others, especially to our special people. We have to creatively incorporate stories and YouTube videos into our daily lessons of people helping others, not for monetary gain or other reward but for the personal satisfaction of doing a good job helping the less fortunate, our most vulnerable. All children need opportunities to serve, and even if they are contrived, that's better than offering no opportunities to practice giving selflessly. A sign of a society's compassion is how it protects its special needs population. In the case of my son and others all around the world, we are missing the boat. It warmed my heart to see beach goers saving beached dolphins on Facebook. It warms my heart even more to see volunteers at Special Olympics supporting special athletics. I am reduced to tears when special people reach out to others with disabilities. That's the real definition of empathy.
Jay and I went back to Costco to buy another jacket and found one similar to the stolen one. We pray that Greg gets to wear it this winter. We brought out Greg's old backpack from the garage and wrote his name on the outside in Sharpie, in big letters. That might deter a thief. We're scared to write Greg's name on his new winter coat. After all, couldn't someone say, "Greg, get into my car!"
I'll end with this personal example. A few years ago, I was at the CVS at the Colonial Park Mall. A man with Down Syndrome was trying to pay for his soda and was short on $. I reached into my pocketbook, produced the extra money it took for him to be able to purchase his soda and listened, shocked, as the girl at the register said, "Ma'am, you don't have to do this." I stared at her and replied, "Yes, I do." We all do. I don't care if that special young man does this to someone every day! We have an obligation to help those who need it. Here's what empathy is. You don't feel the obligation with empathy. You feel the joy. I'm going to turn the other cheek in the case of someone stealing my son's winter coat. I hope that thief wears it to keep warm. If he needed it more than my son, for whom I can provide, that's enough for me.
Having Greg has made me a better person.. Does it take all of society to have a special child to show them that they have to help us? Hope not. Everyone must come aboard to teach empathy. Show it, do it, embrace it.
Note to Readers: The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the School.
P. S. Apparently I don't have total empathy. This morning, promptly at 9:00, I took out my law mower and mowed right next to our neighbors' houses. You see, one neighbor permits his dog to bark at six A. M. The other permits his son to blast loud music past 11:00 P.M. Just had to wake THEM up this morning! Thus proving that no one is 100% at anything.
Three things in life are essential: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; the third is to be kind. (I paraphrased something said by author Henry James.)