“Within the student body of our school district, we have children who speak dozens of different languages,” Ed explains. “We take pride in having students with different backgrounds and different cultural heritage.”
About a year ago, the district was approached by Penn-Mar Human Services with an idea to take diversity one step further. Administrators were asked if they would consider hiring adults with intellectual disabilities to work in the district’s schools in a number of different capacities.
“The idea was in keeping with the district’s philosophy,” Ed recalls. “Still, there is a difference between philosophy and reality. Students in middle school can be cruel to one another and to people they perceive as different from themselves. We wanted to be ready for any situation. Looking back, I think I can say without question we were not quite prepared for what happened at the Middle School. I know I wasn’t.”
When Holly Burkholder came to work at Central Middle School in the summer of 2012, she related well to the school’s staff. Holly performed a variety of tasks during the summer to help the school get ready for the start of a new term.
“We had no doubt Holly would do well in her first few weeks at the Middle School,” stated Cliff Billet, Job Developer at Penn-Mar Human Services. “We also knew the real moment of truth would be when the students returned to school.”
When the students came back to school, many of the teachers and administrators at Central Middle School were taken by surprise.
“It didn’t take long for teachers, administrators, and the entire school staff to realize Holly was making a real difference here. Her personality, her attitude toward her work, and her smile were infectious for all of us and for our students. The students especially sensed her positive attitude and they responded in kind,” Ed said. “I can say, without a doubt, Holly has reached some of the students in our school in ways we haven’t been able to despite our education, training, and experience. She has a special quality.”
As the school year came to a close, the administration, faculty, and staff of Central Middle School demonstrated how much Holly meant to them with action.
“Each year we vote on an award for the teacher or staff who we all feel has inspired our students. It usually goes to a teacher,” Ed explains, “although one year I received it myself. We all vote and announce the award on the last day of school after the students have left the building for the summer.
This year Holly received this award and recognition. When her name was announced, everyone in the audience rose as one to give her a standing ovation. “They didn’t do that for me, I can tell you. I have never seen anything like it in my career.”
“There is no question in my mind Holly’s presence at Central Middle School is changing lives. First and foremost, she proved to us that a person with an intellectual disability should not be separated from their community simply because they have different cognitive skills. We all hear learning is not limited to the classroom and books. In this sense, working with Holly has been an education and an experience for student, teacher, and staff alike—and we are better for it.”