I’m a special education teacher in Chicago at Johnson College Prep in Englewood. This neighborhood is infamous for violence and often pegged as the most dangerous neighborhood in Chicago.
When Sarah and WellTraveledKids invited my students and I on a trip to the Skydeck at the Willis Tower and to munch on Garrett’s famous popcorn, I was thrilled. These students live in a place where the Chicago skyline is always visible—within 10 miles of Englewood—but some have never visited downtown.
Students with intellectual disabilities of various levels and autism comprise my classroom. School is a safe haven for them, but still my students face challenges that most people will never have to go through. They don’t often complain about their struggles because they don’t know any different. Instead, they wonder things like:
- Can people tell I have a disability?
- Will I have food to eat today?
- Will I have clean clothes to wear tomorrow?
- Which route should I take home to avoid any violence?
- Am I stupid?
- When will I get an actual bed to sleep in?
- Will we get kicked out of our house this month?
To help young scholars with intellectual disabilities navigate these questions, I created a self contained, life skills-based program when I started working at the school four years ago. These students needed somewhere to belong, and were not getting what they needed in general education classes.
Prepping for the Real World
Now, they spend their days working on real-life skills that they can apply to everyday happenings in order to become more independent. Most skills that we work on in the classroom are common sense to the general population: appropriate etiquette, counting money, cooking, hygiene, reading street signs, navigating public transportation, and self advocacy.
By generalizing these skills, students can apply them to many situations they might come across in their lives. Sarah’s proposal of a trip downtown created the perfect opportunity to apply what we’d been working on in the classroom to the outside world. I couldn’t wait to tell my students of the opportunity.
The best part: Sarah gave us the flexibility to plan the trip as a class. To see my students’ faces as they were planning a route using Google Maps, checking out the SkyDeck website for ticket prices, and salivating over Garrett’s popcorn was amazing. It showed me and them what they’re capable of.
My students decided early on that they needed to make a poster to say thank you to Sarah and WellTraveledKids, and they had lots of questions about Sarah and her son Harry, who would be joining us on the expedition. They were so curious about these generous people and why they had chosen our class with which to share this experience.
Finally, the big day arrived. We walked the block and a half—with smiling faces and lots of eager energy—from the school to the train station. My students have been working on learning how to load their transit cards with money on their own and then going through the turnstile to wait for the train
I could see a quiet, nervous energy in all of their eyes as they got ready to embark on the journey. On the way downtown, they talked about what they would be able to see and asked me millions of questions about downtown Chicago.
- “Do people swim in the lake?”
- “Can we fall off the ledge?”
- “Are there a lot of other black people in the city?”
- “Will Sarah and Harry be friendly?”
- “Do I look okay?”
Leaving the train, we then walked to the SkyDeck. I loved seeing their friendly responses to Sarah and especially little Harry. My students instantly connected with Harry.
Whether it was pushing each other to go on the ledge, practicing all inclusivity with each other, connecting with Harry by giving him piggy back rides and posing for pictures, or buddying up and ordering popcorn, my students gained so much from this experience. They approached the real-life experiences with confidence and ease, and behaved as the wonderful young adults I urge them to be on a daily basis.
It was truly an unforgettable experience for them—but for me as their teacher, there really are no words. It made my work feel even more meaningful than before. I finally felt like what we were doing at the school would be applicable for the students in real-life situations. I got a glimpse of what their lives might look like beyond our classroom walls.
At the end of the day, not all of my students’ questions were answered, though. They aren’t totally ready to face life’s challenges on their own, but their faith in humanity and in themselves was strengthened.
I am so thankful that my students were given the opportunity to get this new view on life. The experience was once in a lifetime, and they were overwhelmed with gratitude for Sarah and WellTraveledKids. My students still can’t believe that random people would do something this nice for them, but now they believe in possibility.