Posts Tagged ‘belonging’

To Belong, Part 2

Story and photos by Stephanie Kim.

I finally took the plunge. I invited my daughter’s classmate over to go to the neighborhood pool with us. That doesn’t sound like such a big deal for most, but for my daughter Julia and me, it was a very big deal.

To BelongJulia is an 11-year-old 5th grader with an intellectual disability. This past school year was the first time in many years that she was included with her typical peers in the general education classroom. And while her academic achievement continues to progress very slowly, she has had an amazing year surrounded by a great group of friends. It was in this classroom that she felt like she belonged and experienced the joy of being surrounded by friends.

julia-pool-250pxIt can be difficult for some to make new friends, but for those with disabilities, there are additional barriers. How can Julia be friends with kids who are reading Harry Potter and multiplying fractions when she can’t yet read, write, or count? Julia is often left playing alone because she can’t understand rules to games and lacks the strength and endurance to play sports. It is challenging to develop friendships when you can’t communicate effectively or share common interests. But I am determined to keep Julia from a life of isolation and loneliness, which some might say is a greater disability.

Julia loves the swimming pool and wanted to invite her friend from school. So I finally arranged it. While she can now get across the pool and feels very comfortable in the water, it took over a year of swim lessons for her to establish a healthy respect for the water, to learn to hold her breath, and to understand that the wall was the safe place. It took many more years before she would finally use both feet to kick, albeit rather ungracefully. She still doesn’t use her arms when she swims because then her feet stop kicking. But she can float and she can swim across the pool and she does know how to find the wall in the deep end.

To BelongMy original goal in her taking swim lessons was to keep her safe. What I didn’t realize is that learning to swim provided so much more, especially combined with all the new friends she made this year.

Julia and her friend swam and played in the pool together for hours and had a blast. As I watched them play, time just stopped. I realized all that money spent on years of swimming lessons and the many hours of driving across town to get her there each week finally paid off. Just for that one moment alone, it was worth it all. Being able to swim put her on a level playing field where she could finally just be a kid playing with a friend at the pool. That day, I had a glimpse of a hopeful future for Julia – a member of the community, included in the fun, surrounded by friends.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in The Richmond Times Dispatch on August 23, 2015.

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Story by Stephanie Kim. Photos by Stephanie Kim and Allison Maxwell.

My parents came to the United States from Korea in the early 1960s to further their education. We moved often in my early years as we followed their places of study and employment. While living in inner city Chicago in the early 1970s, it was rare to see Asians. Even though I spoke English fluently, I remember being teased often in elementary school and being stared at by strangers as if I were from another planet because I looked different.

A few years later in the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee, it was a very different population, but no better. I clearly recall being teased with Chinese chants even by adults at my elementary school as I passed in the hallway, mumbling under my breath that I was Korean, not Chinese. Thankfully, despite these racist remarks, I always managed to find classmates and neighbors who were willing to take the time to get to know me and to realize that we actually had much in common.

I dreaded my final elementary school move to Virginia Beach, thinking about again being judged and teased because of who I was, isolated because of my ethnicity, discriminated against because of my looks. Much to my surprise, about half of my classmates were Asians. I easily found a place to belong.

To BelongMy earlier childhood experience is not much different from what many kids still experience today, including my own daughter who is intellectually disabled. Though she has no outward appearance of a disability, she has been segregated from her peers at school, teased for not being able to keep up, stared at by people who don’t understand her behavioral outbursts, and isolated for not understanding the rules of play. She is a stranger in her own neighborhood playground because she is bussed to another school in the county.

I try my best to make sure that she’s included in school and extra-curricular activities and that others understand her disability. I don’t want people to be afraid to talk with her or play with her just because she can’t do everything they do or may not act the way they expect. I don’t want her to be teased or feel isolated or excluded. I am so grateful to the friends she has made over the past few years that genuinely care for her and help her and give her a sense of belonging, which is what we all want—to belong.

To BelongJust like other parents, I have hopes and dreams for my child. After a year of advocating, she is finally being included in the general education class alongside her peers. I want her to learn from her classmates how to work hard, how to be a good friend, and how to be respectful of others. I want her to become an active and contributing member of her community. I want her to know she’s special, but no more special than any other child.

My real hope is not just that she would learn, but that she would also teach. I hope she will teach others not to be afraid of those different from them, but to embrace the differences. I hope she brings out the creativity in teachers to find exceptional teaching methods. My greatest hope is that she would teach a generation of students at her school to be patient with those who can’t think or do as quickly, to be more compassionate with those who struggle, to be accepting of others who may not look or act like them, and to be more understanding of those with a different perspective.

Much like Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream that my child will one day live in a nation where she will not be judged by her disability, but by the content of her character.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in The Richmond Times Dispatch on November 30, 2014.

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