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Ability awareness takes center stage

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Jennifer Clark knows what it’s like to learn how to support a child who has autism.

“This has changed our life,” she said. “No one plans for this, but all these years later ... we can now say what a blessing in disguise this is.”

The support offered by staff with the Medford School District has made a positive impact for the development of her son, Mason, Clark said.

Tuesday evening, she gathered with families from across the district to celebrate Mason and other students who received special education services from the district.

Medford School District’s fourth Ability Awareness Gala brought together students, families and friends to celebrate those students’ abilities in two hours of dance, music, poetry and speeches.

“This is an important event,” Clark said. “We’re very thankful that the district takes the time to put on an event like this for our children.”

Students in special education work with personalized learning programs and navigate challenges in an educational system that is still adapting to meet their needs.

Tania Tong, Medford’s supervisor of special education and student services, mentioned two programs the Medford School District has implemented in recent years to improve outcomes for students in special education.

The first is the co-teaching method, in which special education teachers work with teachers in general education classes, coordinating to keep students with Individualized Education Programs together with their peers.

Tong also highlighted the district’s Peer Mentor Program, which pairs students who have disabilities with students in general classes. The program spans kindergarten all the way through high school and, as students testified in a video played during the gala, leaves an impact on both sets of kids in the partnership.

Student performers sparked some of the liveliest moments of the evening, with impressions, dances, poetry readings and singing.

Taylor Thomas, a student at Central Medford High School, pulled some audience members to their feet as they applauded her performance of “This is Me,” from the 2018 movie “The Greatest Showman.” The film embraces a similar message to the Ability Awareness Gala — of inclusion, acceptance and appreciation for a wide variety of abilities and appearances.

Motivational speaker Kemy Joseph gave the keynote speech, focusing on different aspects of resilience. With frequent interjections for audience participation and involvement, Joseph described each type of resilience he embraces, which he described as relational, street, resource and rock-bottom resilience.

Using a PowerPoint presentation like a college professor in a lecture, Joseph shared how he dealt with challenges, including his parents’ divorce and the loss of his father when he was 13 years old. Those obstacles initially turned him down a path that led to run-ins with law enforcement.

“Resilience is the second greatest principle in the world,” Joseph read from one of his slides. “So what’s the first?”

“Love,” shouted out an audience member.

“Love,” Joseph said back. “The Beatles got it right.”

Shortly after, Mason Clark took the stage with his classmates from Griffin Creek Elementary to recite Shel Silverstein poems. Their artistic interpretations of the poems were displayed as each one read. The audience laughed and called out encouragement.

Celebration, after all, was the point.

“We really wanted to honor Disabilities Awareness Month in different way by celebrating the talents, gifts and capacities of our students who experience disabilities,” Tong said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

The audience watches animations created by Brandon Fortino-Volk during the Ability Awareness Gala at Central Medford High School Tuesday evening.{ }{ } Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Kemy Joseph spoke about resilience as the keynote speaker at Medford School District's Ability Awareness Gala, which celebrated students with disabilities unique abilities.