SPENCERVILLE — “I 6 and I’ll be 7.”
That is how kindergarten student Hunter Wiechart describes himself. Hunter is one of the six students in the new multiple disabilities classroom at Spencerville, a class for students in kindergarten through fourth grade operated through the Allen County Educational Service Center. Hunter is also one of the more than 400,000 Americans with Down syndrome, a genetic condition that occurs in one out of every 691 births. People with Down syndrome have an extra chromosome, and they have cognitive delays to varying degrees.
With World Down Syndrome Day celebrated on March 21, intervention specialist Ashley Mooney, along with her assistants, Cyndie Moorman and Lora Narket, wanted to do something special to celebrate not only this new classroom, but specifically Hunter, the only student with Down syndrome in the class.
“We had T-shirts made for awareness of Down syndrome, and some of the money will be donated to Hunter for his Buddy Walk, an event in the fall for Down syndrome awareness,” she said. “It started really small, but we ended up selling over 200 T-shirts.”
Several T-shirts were on display at the school, worn by both students and teachers.
While Down syndrome has its challenges, Mooney emphasized that Hunter, as well as others with the disorder, are fully capable of developing into productive members of society.
“A lot of people don’t think about what abilities they have,” she said. “Hunter functions like a normal kindergartener. He’s at a lower academic level, but he does math, reading and writing, but it’s just modified to meet his needs.”
Hunter’s mother, Sarah Wiechart, participated in organizing a pledge at the school to not use the word, “retarded.”
“It was very exciting to watch everyone come through lunch,” she said. “The whole school signed.”
Having Hunter in the school has helped students learn more about what it is to live with Down syndrome and that people with it are just as worthy of respect and friendship as anyone else.
“People can be kind of confused as to if he can communicate and how they can get involved with him,” Mooney said. “Everyone found out that he is just like any other kid. He’s funny and silly just like any other kid.”
“Everyone here knows Hunter,” elementary principal Susie Wagner said. “Whenever he walks down the hall, you can hear people saying, ‘Hi, Hunter.’”
Hunter also particpates with students in the larger kindergarten class. According to kindergarten teacher Brooke Zerbe, Hunter was immdeiately accepted by the class.
“I don’t think they see him any different,” she said. “He’s just a trip. He’s entertaining. They were so welcoming.”
Hunter has blossomed in his first year in school, according to his mother.
“He was a little iffy at first, but the kindergarten class just accepted him,” Wiechart said. “I can’t explain how much progress he’s made from the beginning of school until now.”
Through events like World Down Syndrome Day, Hunter’s mother is hopeful this will help others in the community become more comfortable in interacting with Hunter and others with Down syndrome.
“When you accept someone with Down syndrome as they are, they are the happiest people ever,” Wiechart said. “He’s changed our lives in ways I can’t explain. Everyone he meets is changed. I think it’s changed the school a lot having him here.”