By Joyce DeWallace, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Author Dennis Vanasse visited Armstrong Elementary School in Westborough to read both of his recently published books, “I Am Special Too” and “Stand Tall Against Bullying.”
The school serves kindergarten through third grade, so the children range in age from 5 to 8 years old. They were eager to raise their hands and participate as they discussed differences and talked about what makes each individual special.
Vanasse’s books address important issues facing students in every classroom. The hero of the first book is Marty, a 7-year-old boy who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair.? His classmates ignore him and don’s realize how special he is.
Vanasse asked half a dozen kids, “What’s special about you?” The little ones were eager to talk about how they could dance, play basketball, or draw
pictures. Vanasse then read that Marty liked art and animals and going to the beach. He also won a medal in the Special Olympics – all things that made him special.
When he read the second book about bullying, Vanasse had the children repeat the five things they can do to deal with bullying: turn your back and walk away; no laughing; support the victim; talk to an adult, and tell the bully to stop.
As he read the stories page by page, Vanasse asked the children many questions. The whole presentation was interactive, and the children were quick to yell out the correct answers and give examples.
“My goal is to teach acceptance,” Vanasse said. “My books demonstrate different strategies.”
The author developed his interest in helping children during the 14 years he taught special needs students. He has been at Anna Maria College in Paxton since 1997, both as a teacher and as director of the Student Success Center. He was the recipient of the Foundress Award, which is presented to a staff member who exemplifies the mission, values, and practices of the Sisters of Saint Anne,
the religious group that founded Anna Maria College. He also works with special needs students at South High School in Worcester.
He emphasized that young people are responsible for their own success by learning skills that can help them reach their own potential.
“I love to see them shine and accomplish tasks,” Vanasse noted.
One of the reasons Vanasse spoke at the Armstrong School is first-grader Ryan Summers, who has a very rare disease called junctional epidermolysis bullosa (EB) and uses a wheelchair.? He met Ryan at a book signing and was impressed with how the youngster deals with the genetic disorder which causes his skin to break down very easily resulting in blisters and open wounds. His third book, “Everyone Belongs,” is based on Ryan and will be available later this fall.
In order to attend school, Ryan must have a full-time pediatric wound care specialist.
“Ryan is awesome,” his nurse Cynthia Rotondi said. “He has the best attitude. To see someone who has gone through such an ordeal all his life is touching.”
According to Ryan’s mother, Denise Summers, “the school has done a really great job of providing resources and tools to allow me as a parent to feel comfortable knowing that Ryan is fully assimilated with all his peers.”
“A lot of attentive and loving staff members make it possible for Ryan to succeed in a typical school environment,” school secretary Linda Sweet added.
Vanasse’s work to help both educators and students deal with special needs epitomizes the motto of Armstrong School:? “Where everyone tries their hardest, learns, cares, and belongs.”