Building a bridge of inclusion for special needs children through passionately raising disability awareness.

After many years of working in private special education schools, Jenn came to work at the Lynch Elementary School in 2005 as the lead teacher in the Specialized Learning Center grades 3-5. The program is a district wide one, which supports students with significant specials needs from across the town. Important to Jenn is utilizing her role as a special educator at Lynch to help support classroom teachers and students as well as accessing any opportunities for inclusion. Raising disability awareness for students and faculty has become her passion. Jenn has helped to facilitate Lynch’s participation in National Inclusion week observed every December, as well as working within the community on several projects that tackle issues such as Bullying and Empowerment.

In 2014, Jenn approached the Multicultural Network with an idea to “Light it Up Blue,” to raise awareness for Autism. Light it up Blue is a global initiative, with cities across the country and around the world participating by lighting up monuments and major buildings for the month of April. It seemed an amazing way to have Winchester become a part of this amazing celebration and opportunity to raise Autism awareness. Working with Sahar Ahmed from the Brio Integrated Theater as well as Anne Kostos with the support of the Disability Access Commission (DAC) and the Multicultural Network, an annual event was born. Each year this event has grown to include a bigger crowd turnout, participation from the schools, and support from local area businesses. Two years ago, she was able to convince her hometown of Burlington to participation as well. It started with the Common becoming blue for the month of April the last two years. This year Burlington will also hold its first community event.

Interview with Jennifer Flaherty

Tell me a little bit about yourself. What called you to this work?

I have always known that I wanted to be a teacher. I started out as a camp counselor and babysitter then pursued a Bachelor’s Degree and became certified in Elementary Education. I worked in a few different roles as a teacher—in public school as a teaching assistant and as an English  teacher for the Department of Youth Services program in the Plymouth County House of Corrections working with juvenile offenders. I ended up at the May Institute working with children with Traumatic Brain Injuries. Through this opportunity I was able to work on a clinical Masters degree and became certified in Severe Special Education. The job at the May was hard, sometimes even scary, but I loved it and knew I had found my calling. After my son was born I began working at Lynch Elementary School. The Lynch school community is an amazing place to work and I am proud to teach here!

What did you see as the need in our community that you might fill?

I think that in any community at any given time there are so many good things happening, and often people aren’t even aware they are there! Be it opportunities, support groups or workshops, and such. This has become increasingly apparent to me as I have gotten involved with Brio integrated Theater and the Multicultural Network , introduced to different groups there with great ideas for inclusivity, and have been presented with opportunities to work with many of them. I think it’s so important to facilitate a connection between all these amazing people and the work they do for the greater community! As a teacher connected to students, their families, and teachers in the community who share my passions for widening awareness and opportunities for special needs youth, I can help to fill the knowledge gap of these available resources.

 

Tell us how you see this calling of yours enriching our common life.

In the immediate here and now, I try to make myself a resource for friends, family or families of students at Lynch or elsewhere in the community. People need information, plain and simple. Every child who asks me a question about a disability or how or why one of my students may do or act a certain way provides a chance to give information, to acknowledge differences without creating “mystery.” I feel that as kids get older this mystery can eventually become fear.

If I look into the more distant future my ultimate dream is to open a social skills center, not clinical in anyway, but just a place where kids can hang — a supportive place for kids to be themselves, connect with others with common interests, make friends and feel good.

When one teaches, two learn is a known adage. What have been the highlights of your experience so far?

Oh, SO MANY! My one hundred percent highlight as a teacher is watching students as they grow up, or when they come back to visit, that is THE BEST. I am in my 12th year at Lynch, so that makes quite a few students who have gone through my classroom. Another major highlight was after the first Light it Up Blue celebration, seeing how many people — friends, family, and colleagues — came out to support us. I will never forget that!

Since this is the month honoring women, who is one woman who has inspired you and why?

My mother is my inspiration. She is kind, honest, strong and smart, and raised my sisters and brother and me to be the same. She remains my biggest cheerleader to this day!

Any advice to share?

Ask questions, share your ideas and dreams and never ever sell yourself or ANYONE short. You have no idea what any person is capable of . . . for yourself, shoot for the moon!