'Everyone needs friends': Nora Project fosters inclusion as classes host special-needs schoolmates
Seven-year-old Noah Wood lights up as Butterfield Elementary School fourth-grader Faith Flayter arrives at the door of his special needs classroom.
Noah's usual shyness disappears as he walks with Faith to spend time with students in her classroom.
It's part of a program called The Nora Project that Libertyville Elementary District 70 has adopted thanks to Terri Coughlin of Libertyville. When Coughlin learned about the mentoring program, she felt her school district and its students could benefit from it. Coughlin's first child, Emily, has had ADHD and delayed language since birth.
"People take for granted what goes into having a kid that's different and watching how that kid is socially. I think that's why I've gotten so involved, because I know what it's like," Coughlin said.
Twenty-two special needs students called Nora Friends were paired with classrooms across District 70. Students got to know their Nora Friends through discussions, interviews and regular classroom play dates.
The Nora Project aims to normalize differences, demystify disability and promote meaningful connections between students and their peers with disabilities. Lessons on disabilities are incorporated into the English and language arts curricula.
The Nora Project was created by Glenview teacher Amanda Martinsen, whose prematurely born niece Nora suffered brain damage after a corrective surgery.
"To see The Nora Project spread to other districts, such as District 70, makes me feel very proud and it warms my heart to know that so many children are truly making a difference in the world," Martinsen said.
"Our intention is to foster friendships, while deepening students' understanding about empathy, inclusion, differences and disabilities," said District 70's director of special services, Chris Otto.
Butterfield School fourth-grade teacher Julie Serrecchia's class hosts two special needs students, Noah and Nolan Finch. The two Nora Friends meet with the fourth-grade class about once a month.
"I like the kids and they are very nice to me," said Nolan, 9.
Students used their iPads to compile photos and videos of their visits with Nora Friends. About 600 people attended The Nora Night Film Festival at Copeland Manor School in Libertyville, where they celebrated their year and watched a short film about the Nora Friends edited by students in the classrooms.
"My hope is that my students will discover in a very meaningful, memorable way that everyone has a unique story, everyone has gifts and challenges, and everyone needs friends," Serrecchia said.
"Noah has the best time. He's usually very shy in front of people but when he comes here, he totally grows and explodes," said Noah's mom, Laura Wood.
"For us, it's all about educating people about people with needs and that leads to acceptance, which leads to inclusion," she said.