Olivia DeWald, a college sophomore from Newtown, Conn., was on her way home for winter break the day a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School shocked the community and country.
“It was Dec. 14, and I was going home that day,” DeWald said. “It was definitely a hard winter break.”
Wednesday afternoon, DeWald was in Gainesville, where she is spending her spring break giving back to children.
“It’s awesome spending time with these kids and just appreciating the time I have with them,” DeWald said. “I wish I could stay longer.”
DeWald is one of eight students from the University of Vermont who drove 22 hours by van to forgo beaches and cruises to volunteer at Challenged Child & Friends, a nonprofit school for children with disabilities.
“CCAF has been around over 25 years, and we have children that have some type of special need, or developmental delay,” volunteer coordinator Robyn Shoaf explained, listing Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism as examples. “We have them in classrooms with children who are ‘typically’ developing, as we call them — there’s nothing medically wrong with them.”
There is about a 50-50 mix of children in the classrooms, Shoaf said. The center provides speech, occupational and physical therapy for children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 6 years.
“I’ve been working with kids 1 and 2 years old this week,” said volunteer and North Carolina native Nic Brow, a communication sciences major. “I’m interested in becoming a speech pathologist and working in pediatrics.”
Shoaf added that while four of the students study education or medical fields, the other four are a mixed batch.
“There’s a global economy major, and others not related to kids or medical field majors,” Shoaf said.
Brow said alternative spring break trips are a traditional offering from the university.
“At our school, alternative spring break has been coming here for awhile; it’s a trip that happens each school year,” he said. “I’m glad I was able to be a part of it because it’s just been super awesome.”
The eight volunteers weren’t friends before they met, Dewald said.
“We didn’t really know each other beforehand, but now we’re all really close because we drove 22 hours in a van together,” she said.
The university’s partnership with CCAF has been around for five years, Shoaf said.
“They were looking for somewhere in the South that works with kids with special needs, and they just happened to find us,” she said.
While the school pays the students’ way down, a little bit of Southern hospitality takes care of the rest.
“We don’t have to do this, but we provide lunches for them. Yesterday, Loretta’s down in Oakwood — because most of them have never been to the South before — was nice enough to donate lunch for everybody,” she said.
“First Baptist Church in Gainesville is gracious enough to let them sleep on the floor over at the Family Life Center over there, so First Baptist lets them stay there for a week,” Shoaf added.
The extra help comes at an important time for the organization, Shoaf said.
“It’s great, especially right now, when we have a lot of teachers and staff out with illnesses and things, flus going around like crazy, and they’re able to fill in,” she said. “We have about a one-to-three or one-to-four teacher-to-student ratio, so having the volunteers here to help helps us maintain that ratio even when staff isn’t here.”
Oftentimes, Shoaf said, less flattering traits of young adults seem to be magnified.
“I think sometimes we focus on the things that are bad or wrong with young people, when there are kids out there doing great, selfless things,” she said. “This is their spring break, so while most kids are at the beach, these kids are choosing to be here working.”
Not that DeWald, surrounded by smiling 2- and 3-year-olds, was balking.
“I love kids, and it’s a really good age group. It’s still a little chaotic sometimes, but it’s OK,” she said. “I love my class and all the kids I got to meet.”