Mansfield mom launched program to teach children about their special needs classmates
The Patriot Ledger - 8/14/2019
MANSFIELD - When Jamie Piro started kindergarten her parents worried she wouldn't fit in and school would become too stressful for her. Jamie, who has a form of autism, was placed in an inclusive class with developing students but she wasn't being included by her classmates.
So her mother, Kim Piro, offered to visit Jamie's class to read a children's book about autism and talk to the students about Jamie.
"I told them about the things that were challenges for her," Piro said. "I tried to list all the things Jamie did which were just like them. I told them everyone did odd things.
"They were scared," she said. "After that it was not odd or scary.
"It changed the entire climate in the classroom. It was so easy."
Today, Introducing Children to Acceptance through Reading and Education known as iCare, a program started by Piro to educate children about their special needs classmates, is 17 years old. The 11th annual Jamie Fund 5K Race/Walk was held last Saturday, Aug. 10 at Mansfield High School.
The race attracted 225 participants and raised about $4,000 for the iCare Program. The event is iCare's sole fundraiser.
Piro started iCare after attending at Special Education PAC meeting where then-superintendent John Moretti was speaking.
"One man was very saddened because his special education child was being bullied," Piro said. "John started talking about the anti-bullying program coming to the schools."
Piro then raised her hand and said it sounded like a great program, but first they needed to educate the kids about their special education peers so they understand why they act as they do. She told of her visit to Jamie's class.
"He said, 'If it's that simple then maybe we can do it in every class,'" Piro recalled.
Soon Piro, who also had a newborn at home, was starting what would become iCare where volunteers read to and talk with students about special needs classmates.
Over the years, Piro read to every one of Jamie's classes while also running iCare. The program brings 30 to 50 volunteers each fall to read and discuss special needs to children in every class from preschool to 5th grade in Mansfield. The school libraries are stocked with 30 to 40 books for children about special needs such as autism, Down Syndrome and more.
Currently, 37 schools in Massachusetts, including neighboring Easton, as well as 12 other states use the iCARE program as part of their curriculum.
"The kids are all afraid to upset the child," Piro said. "When it comes to special needs people are intimidated. They don't want to be rude or make a mistake."
Today, Jamie, 22, has left the Mansfield Public Schools and through the Horace Mann Educational Association in Plainville is trying out various possible jobs for future employment.
Three days a week she volunteers at different jobs trying to find a paying job that will suit her. Through the center she has volunteered at the Easton Children's Museum, the Village at Willow Crossings, Meals on Wheels and in the Horace Mann Educational Association's florist shop.
Two days a week Jamie also volunteers as a teacher's aide at Jordan Jackson School.
"She wants to work with children," Piro said. "She loves it."
In June, Jamie and her friend Audrey McDonnell of Mansfield were chosen to sing a duet version of the National Anthem at Fenway Park during the Sox vs. Rangers game for Disability Awareness Night.
Piro's volunteers will be visiting classrooms again this October sharing. She is always looking for new volunteers.
"It's such a small commitment," Piro said, adding a volunteer may spend 15 to 30 minutes with a classroom once a year or choose to visit multiple classrooms. Working parents can do it on lunch hours.
In her years with iCare Piro said there is one little girl she will never forget. The student came up to her after she had read to Jamie's second grade class. The girl said she would be friends with Jamie now but wouldn't have before because she was afraid.
"She said 'I'm not afraid anymore,'" Piro said.
The two went on to become very good friends.
For more information about iCare go to www.thejamiefund.org or email Piro at email@example.com.
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