Monday, April 28, 2008

I think there's something in my eye

So my step-mother passed along this incredible article about a woman teaching a terminally ill deaf child with Downs in Pittsburgh. And that woman happens to be married to my brother in Pittsburgh.

Nice job sister. Love you and incredibly proud of you.

There's some great photos of her with Sarah, the little girl here.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Back to headlines
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On the Job: Student's illness changes teacher's lessons

By Allison M. Heinrichs
Monday, April 28, 2008

Buzz up!
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Malkah Bird has taught mentally challenged children to tell time, use sign language and count money.

But when one of her students developed a deadly cancer, Bird began teaching her most difficult lesson.

"I never would have guessed at the beginning of the year that the big umbrella concept we're going to work on is what happens when your friend gets sick," said Bird, who teaches special education at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. "I've never taught this lesson before, so we're all learning together."

Bird, 29, is in her second year with the Edgewood school. It's a career path she never imagined she'd take

Shortly after graduating with a degree in geology from Smith College in western Massachusetts, Bird was accepted to Teach for America, a program that recruits high-scoring recent college graduates to teach in underprivileged areas.

She was sent to the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico and, for two years, taught a class of mentally challenged teen boys whom other teachers had labeled "impossible."

Many of the children couldn't speak and would get frustrated because Bird didn't understand what they wanted. So she taught them -- and herself -- some sign language.

"A whole new world opened up," she said. "Suddenly they had this ability to communicate."

Inspired, Bird went to the University of Pittsburgh to earn a master's degree in deaf education and started teaching middle school at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

Although most children at the school are as intelligent as any hearing child, Bird decided to continue teaching mentally challenged students.

"Everyone has a calling in life, and this is Malkah's," said Donald Mazreku, assistant principal in the middle school. "The students she works with have multiple disabilities and, where some may view that as a challenge, Malkah is a person who perceives it as an opportunity."

Bird's goal is to help the children become functioning members of society, teaching them to count money, tell time, make food and do laundry.

"Who's to say that what they have to contribute to society isn't just as important as what I contribute?" Bird said. "Every human deserves the opportunity to feel successful."

Sarah Richardson, 15, of Wilkins is one of Bird's students. A strong-willed girl who loves candy and the Disney princesses, Sarah was born with Down syndrome and diagnosed with autism four years ago.

"She's brilliant with any kind of matching or shapes," Bird said.

In February, Sarah was diagnosed with a rare cancer that caused her left thigh to swell to three times its normal size. She was admitted to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Oakland.

"That day, when I told Malkah that Sarah had cancer, she came down here and was waiting for me in the emergency room," said Sarah's mother, Denise Richardson. "We call her Malkah-mom."

Because the cancer has spread to Sarah's lungs, doctors consider her terminally ill. Denise Richardson isn't sure her daughter will be alive for her 16th birthday May 29.

The school rearranged class schedules for Bird and fellow teacher Sally Wellman so they could spend a few hours every week tutoring Sarah. Even on days she isn't scheduled to teach, Bird visits Sarah, who is in hospice care at The Children's Institute in Squirrel Hill.

On a recent visit, Sarah tried to match shapes through a morphine haze and the distracting tickle of her strawberry-blond hair falling out when she suddenly scrunched up her face and started to cry.

Tears sprang to Denise Richardson's eyes as Bird stopped the lesson to cup Sarah's face in her hands and kiss her forehead.

"That is what's hardest for me," Denise Richardson said. "How do you watch your little girl in so much pain?"

To prepare Sarah's classmates for their friend's death, Bird and the other teachers explain daily that Sarah is very sick. Bird created a fundraiser called "Steps for Sarah" and her students have walked 100 miles and raised $2,000 to help Sarah's family.

"Just as with every other teacher that I have seen in that school, Malkah has a love for her students," said John Irwin, who is the father of Nathan, 15, one of Sarah's classmates. "It's exemplified in how she, and everyone at the school, has rallied around Sarah Richardson and her family."

Bird said there is value in teaching any child, even one with terminal cancer.

"In the beginning we continued teaching Sarah, I think, because we saw that she was bored," Bird said. "But now it's more. Just like anybody, if you have a reason to fight, you fight."

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