Shrewsbury student shows disabilities can's stop determination

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By Joan Goodchild Community Reporter
Zack Fink, a Shrewsbury eighth-grader with Tourette Syndrome, OCD and ADHD, studies with other classmates at Oak Middle School. Zack is a stellar student and, despite his challenges, is very involved in community and extracurricular activities. PHOTO/JOANGOODCHILD

Shrewsbury – Barbara Fink always knew her son, Zack, would get easily frustrated and seemed a bit different as a young child. But it wasn's until one fateful day, when the Shrewsbury mother was volunteering in his third-grade classroom, that she saw the first signs that something more serious was happening.

” Zack started making noises,” Barbara said. ” The teacher told him to stop and he said he couldn's. I actually ended up taking him home that day and punishing him.”

In hindsight, Barbara now realizes Zack was telling the truth when he said he couldn's control his noisemaking. That's because that day was the first time Zack began to show evidence of sudden onset Tourette Syndrome – a disability marked by tics, which can sometimes mean making involuntary sounds. Zack was eventually diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome after the Finks sought medical help.

“The noises started literally all of a sudden,” Barbara said. “They did not exist the day before.”

Zack, now in eighth grade at Oak Middle School, also has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is often diagnosed with Tourette, as well as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The diagnoses, at first, were extremely hard on Zack and his family. But then, they took stock and decided to make the best of it.

“I said, “you know, no child has ever died from Tourette Syndrome,”” Barbara said.

And despite what to many might seem like insurmountable odds, Zack has thrived as a student. Academically, he is an all-honors student who scored among the top ten percent in his age group in Massachusetts on the math portion of the MCAS. He has also produced an award-winning project for a Massachusetts History Day contest that earned him a spot in the regional competition. However, socially, the disabilities have been more difficult to overcome. In younger grades, classmates found it hard to be accepting.

“In fifth grade, he was the butt of jokes,” Barbara said.

But Zack chose not to spend a lot of time feeling badly about his social struggles. He spoke at various faculty and school meetings to explain Tourette Syndrome. He also said as people became more accepting of his disabilities, he became more accepting of others too, making it easier to get involved. Now he takes part in football, choir and has even had major roles in local theater productions.

Zack's spunk and determination to live life to the fullest has also landed him the role of Teen Ambassador from Massachusetts for the Tourette Syndrome Association. He recently traveled to Washington, D.C., with 42 others with the condition to meet with lawmakers and bring Tourette Syndrome to their attention and to discuss funding for research.

“It was a really great experience and I got to spend time with a lot of other people who have Tourette,” Zack said. “I don's think everyone has to know everything about Tourette Syndrome, but I's like to see people be more understanding of it.”

Zack's educational aide, Kathleen Harmon, thinks he is a great role model, not just for kids with disabilities, but for all students who feel they face difficult situations each day.

“He's never used his disability as a crutch,” Harmon said, “and he has learned to advocate for himself in an appropriate way.”

As Zack heads to high school next year, he will no longer be working with an aide daily – a testament to how far he has come. He has plans for college and is possibly interested in pursuing a law degree.

“I'se done my best to overcome the challenges I'se been given,” Zack said. “And things may take me a bit longer sometimes, but I always get it done.”