UNION, NJ – Five former Union High School students, also known as the “Dreamin’ OWLs”, shared their experiences with adaptive education and provided suggestions to district child study team members and related personnel last week in the high school auditorium.

The presentation by former students Caitlin Goerlich, Michael DeNicolo, Jess Sousa, Milan Patel, and Saniora Duclervil, was led by Sarah McCulloh, Union High School Transition Coordinator.  The "Dreamin' OWLs" started in concept several years ago through the use of social media, McCulloh said.  “It’s been so rewarding to see these young adults grow and succeed."

The students shared their personal journeys, including challenges and successes, and provided recommendations to the professional staff based upon their individual experiences.

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Caitlin Goerlich, 26, has used a wheelchair since childhood due to a diagnosis of kyphoscoliosis, a combination of scoliosis and kyphosis, and spinal cord injury, due to complications from early childhood surgeries which left her paralyzed from the waist down.  “My official diagnosis is spinal cord injury.” 

Goerlich graduated from Union High School in 2011 and from Kean University with a degree in English in 2016.  For over 15 years, Goerlich was a member of the Children’s Lightning Wheels Paralympic Sports Club, an adaptive sports team based out of Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside.  She still participates as an independent athlete and says she helps out with the Lightning Wheels team whenever she can. 

In 2010, Goerlich spoke to over 200 people at a Dare to Dream Conference and aspires to be a young adult author.  She is currently a sales associate at Kohl’s. 

“Each of us has had our own experiences when it comes to our education, both good and bad,” said Goerlich.  “I think it is important for us to take these experiences with us as we move forward in our life and also offer help to others.”

Goerlich offered a suggestion to the audience to have a conversation with each of their students at the beginning of the year.  “This will give you and your students an opportunity to build a trusting relationship.  You can let them know you are there for them.”  Goerlich said it is important for each student to feel safe, comfortable and heard at school. 

Michael DeNicolo, 23, has cerebral palsy.  He said he is in a wheelchair 85 percent of the time and has had multiple surgeries to help him gain mobility and “today I am able to walk short distances over a period of time.” 

“But, I don’t let my disability define who I am,” DeNicolo said.  He graduated from Union High School in 2013.  He participated in the Dare to Dream program and was the keynote speaker during his senior year.  DeNicolo said he has a passion for sports, especially baseball and the Yankees.  While at Union High School, he was manager of the junior varsity and varsity baseball teams.  “This was a life-changing experience and helped me discover my chosen career path.”  He said he walked onto the baseball field during Senior Day and threw out the ceremonial first pitch.  He was voted Prom King by his classmates.

DeNicolo graduated from Union County College in 2016 with an Associate’s Degree in applied science with a major in sports management.  In the Fall of 2016, he transferred to Fairleigh Dickinson University and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in sports management and administration.  He said he will receive his Master’s Degree later this month.  DeNicolo said he is looking for employment with a professional sports team in the field of sales, marketing or social media.

When it comes to helping students with disabilities, DeNicolo said, “first I would ask you to encourage students to become more involved in understanding their disability and IEP.”  DeNicolo also suggested that professionals make an effort to get to know the students and ask for their input before making any decisions about them.  “Looking back at my high school career, I wish I had taken more of an active role during my IEP meetings.  I believe collaboration with students is so important and can really empower them to work hard and follow their dreams.”

Jessica Sousa, 25, is currently an MSW graduate student at Rutgers University, Newark.  She graduated from Union High School in 2012.  Sousa said she has had low self-esteem since she was a young child.  She said in 2008, when she was in middle school, she went through a phase “that would forever change my life.”  Sousa said she began getting bullied by a group of girls “that I thought were my friends.”  Sousa said she felt as though the students were against her and spoke to her teacher about it.  The teacher spoke with the principal and the bullying stopped. 

Sousa said in her sophomore year at Union High School the “bullies weaved themselves back into my life and I found it difficult to come to school every day.”  She said she couldn’t tell who her friends were and the name-calling started again.  She felt ganged up on and alone.  She said she was the victim of bullying texts and social media harassment.  Her grades declined and she struggled both academically and socially.  The bullies knew she received special education and used it against her.  “I was unhappy and it showed.  I didn’t like going to school and was afraid of what people thought of me.”  She said she cried herself to sleep many nights.

The bullying didn’t stop and became more creative, said Sousa.  She said she was called names in front of staff members.  “I felt hopeless and wasn’t sure how to get through each day,” she said.  At the age of 16, she began thinking about suicide.  Police intervention finally put a stop to the bullying. 

Sousa graduated from Union County College with a degree in criminal justice in 2016.  She then went to Kean University and graduated with honors in 2018 with a degree in psychology.   She is now enrolled in Rutgers School of Social Work, where she is scheduled to graduate in 2020.

As a recommendation, Sousa suggests an open-door policy with guidance and CST team members, “rather than just meeting for annual review and picking classes.”  She said staff should reach out to students, rather than expecting students to reach out to them, because “students don’t always know how to ask for help.”

She would also recommend staff work with all students, “not just the ones that scream the loudest.”  Checking in periodically would also be helpful and could make a huge different in a child’s life, Sousa said.

Milan Patel is 23 years old and has Duchenne muscular dystrophy.  Patel said many people diagnosed with Duchenne do not live past their 20s, but “I know several people in their 40s and 50s who are still going strong.”  He said he began using a wheelchair at 9 years of age and has required daytime breathing assistance since he was 20, as “my breathing muscles have become weak”. 

Patel said he went through the Township of Union schools and graduated Union High School in 2014.  “I created so many great memories throughout my education in Union.”  He said before he received a one-on-one aide, teacher and students helped him in school and “teachers treated me like any other student, which I was grateful for.”

Patel received an Associate’s Degree from the University of Phoenix in 2016.  He is now working on his Bachelor’s Degree from Southern New Hampshire University in graphic design and media arts. 

“I would encourage you to be available to your students to come to you with their problems, even if it has nothing to do with your job title or teaching responsibilities,” advised Patel.  “Just one small conversation could make all the difference in the life of a student”.

Another piece of advice Patel offered team members was to ask questions of their students.  “Don’t be afraid to ask them about their disability or what support they may need.”  Patel said it may be a difficult conversation, “but I can assure you, most students appreciate the effort.” 

Saniora Duclervil, 22, was born in Haiti with a visual impairment, that reduces vision and depth perception and can affect balance and coordination.  She said her disability does not allow her to see far distances and she has worn glasses “ever since I can remember”. 

Duclervil said she lived in Haiti until she was 14 years old during which time she was bullied.  She said students would embarrass her in front of her classmates and criticize her for wearing glasses.  “They said I looked like a nerd and wasn’t as cool as they were.”  She said she sometimes couldn’t eat because of the stress of bullying.  Duclervil said as the years passed, she grew to tolerate the bullying.

Duclervil said her world changed forever on January 12, 2010, when a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti.  “I was at home when the shaking started and I’m fortunate to be one of the survivors.”  Duclervil said houses broke apart and there was much suffering.  Duclervil said she moved to Union at the beginning of 8th grade.  She said there were times at Union High School when she was bullied, but she grew stronger and more confident, so “it didn’t bother me as much”. 

Because of her visual impairment, she needed to sit closer to the board and received extra time on assignments.  She said she also received support services from the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired.  Duclervil said she attended the Dare to Dream conference as a junior and was keynote speaker in her senior year, when she shared her story to over 200 people, and “this experience was marked as one that sparked my growth and confidence”. 

Duclervil graduated from Union High School in 2015 and attended Union County College, where she took classes in information systems, and graduated in May 2017.  She then attended Kean University, where she is currently a senior.  She said in the future she would like to own a company that builds technology for disabled people, “like me”.

“If your students are planning to go to college,” Duclervil said, “I strongly recommend that you educate them about support services at the college level.  As you know, students who wish to receive accommodations in college, must identify themselves and provide the disabilities office with a copy of their IEP and other documentation.”

Another suggestion from Duclervil was for educators to develop a strong working relationship with students “to encourage self-determination and positive attitude.”