School years are the time when many lifelong relationships are formed, through friendships with peers and interactions with teachers and support staff. As the academic year progresses and leaves fall to the ground, CPABC presents this story of a lifelong friendship nurtured in the classroom.
A unique relationship
Joined at the hip is a good way to describe the unique bond between Anita Schmidt-Nenninger and Ben Fullerton. The two were brought together 13 years ago at James Hill Elementary School. Anita served as an Educational Assistant, and was paired up with kindergarten student Ben. The two have stuck together ever since.
Ben, now 17, lives with cerebral palsy (CP) that severely impacts his ability to walk and talk. Anita recalls that Ben’s kindergarten special needs teacher noticed the bond between the two early on in their relationship. “The teacher could see that I understood him, being non-verbal, better than other people,” says Anita. “I could look at him and be able to read his face.”
After James Hill Elementary, the two continued to work together at HD Stafford Middle School, and then to Brookswood Secondary, and quickly became friends. Anita says in an upbeat tone, “he’s like my third child. It was just a really good fit. He understands me and I understand him. He understands everything I say.”
Maintaining a positive attitude
Cerebral palsy is unique to each person, since it manifests in many different forms and therefore affects each person in a different way. For example, Ben’s CP impacts his ability to walk, talk and hear. Being non-verbal has presented its challenges, such as struggling to keep a core group of friends throughout school. Anita says Ben maintains a positive attitude that has drawn friends to him despite his challenges and changing schools. She, on the other hand, focuses primarily on his academics. “I teach him reading, writing, math,” says Anita. “I have always kept my hands off the friendship thing [with other kids].” He has been given the independence to foster relationships in his own way.
Other issues have impacted Ben’s schooling experience over the years. The communication device that was provided to him in grade one didn’t start functioning properly and become compatible with him until grade three. Anita taught the other kids how to communicate with Ben by asking him closed-ended questions, which gave him the option of yes or no answers. There were also situations where she saw him being mistreated, and she would step in and teach the other kids the proper way to behave.
For the most part, Ben has been included in school activities and events. When the Student Council at Brookswood Secondary School was planning their dry grad celebration, they discovered that the venue in New Westminster wasn’t accessible. “The first thing the kids said was, “Well then, Ben can’t come,” says Anita. “He was the only one in a wheelchair in his graduating class.” When the students went to their parents and said that they didn’t want grad there, both Anita and Ben’s mother teared up. “These are kids, his peers who made this decision,” she says. “They said no, Ben has to come.” Ben’s dry grad was ultimately held at the Langley Events Centre — which was accessible — and Anita says it was great.
Anita attributes Ben’s positive outlook and acceptance from his peers to the upbringing he received from his parents and by normalizing interactions with him. “The kids would model what I did, especially in high school,” she says. “Because I talked to him normally, they just talked to him like I did.” She says Ben has always been able to have a voice and communicate with others, either through his communication device, facial cues, or sign language.
“I don’t ever give up,” she says. “If he is trying to tell me something, I don’t care what is happening in the world, I don’t do anything until I understand what he says”. She has always made Ben a priority and contends that most of the time if he is trying to tell her something, it is important. Anita stresses that the two get along very well together and everyone is surprised by how well they communicate.
Going above and beyond
Anita and Ben’s relationship is a two-way street. Anita has taught Ben to be more independent over the years, especially in high school. For her part, Anita, who has been around children and adults with special needs her whole life, feels that Ben has taught her more than anything she ever taught him. “For the most part, he has taught me more compassion, more empathy,” she says. “I have always treated him like I would want to be treated or how I would want someone else treating my child, if he was my child.”
Anita has never ceased to be amazed at Ben’s ability to achieve and exceed expectations. Ben feels that Anita was instrumental to helping him establish relationships as well being a strong advocate for him in his early schooling days. The 17-year-old says he hopes to get into the music production course at Langara College in the fall, but is not sure about his plans for the foreseeable future. Some of his ideas include working as an audio engineer or becoming a public speaker.
“Who knows? All I know is that I am going to be big,” he says. “I don’t know what or how, but I just know.”
Although it takes Ben twice as long to do everything that an able-bodied person can, he has always seen his life without limits. “For example, I want to get this robotic arm that I have tried that would enable me to do more things independently without getting help, but I can’t because it’s too expensive,” he jokes.
CPABC is glad that Anita and Ben were able to share their story and wishes Ben all the best in his future endeavours.