A group of five students with developmental disabilities stepped off a bus and visted Brewed Awakenings around 2:30 p.m on a Tuesday. Mostly they were enjoying their time together, but they were concerned that their teacher was not there. One of them was making noises in her throat, perhaps indicative of anxiety.
Another student walked over to her and rubbed her shoulders, which seemed to partially allay her fears as they waited for the teacher.
Suddenly one of them shouted “There she is!” as Vincine Perlstein’s car entered the parking lot. The anxious vocalizations ended.
Later a second teacher, Kathy Whitman arrived. Both teachers brought developmentally disabled sons with them, bringing the size of the class to seven.
A third helper Alexis Barkin, a student at University of Michigan working on a master’s degree in social work, arrived soon after. The students socialized and snacked for about 45 minutes then got down to business.
They sat around a table, each taking a turn reading from “Charlotte’s Web” by E. B. White. In Chapter 15, titled “The Crickets,” the sound of the chirping insects tells people and farm animals alike that the summer is coming to an end. Even the trees are stirred.
“A little maple tree in the swamp heard the crickets’ song and turned bright red with anxiety,” read the story.
This led to a group discussion on anxiety. What does it feel like? What are some things that make one anxious? They shared their thoughts and feelings.
Later they came to the word “radiant,” a word Charlotte the spider, chose to write in her web to describe her friend Wilbur the pig. Again the two facilitators paused to lead a discussion on the meaning of this word.
Each student read about a half a page. Some read skillfully, while others needed more help. When a student struggled, one of the teachers would try “echo reading” where she would read a word or group of words and the student would repeat it with expression.
They finished the chapter and moved on to a writing lesson. This week they wrote short pieces from the viewpoint of a dog: Luna, Titus, Salute, Honor, etc. Each student had their own dog character.
Next Chapter Book and Jot-It-Down Writing Club of Saline was started in 2013 by three leaders, Pearlstein, Whitman and Anne Babcock. All three began by attending facilitator training with Next Chapter Book Club, an international organization that encourages the formation of community-based book clubs for adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities.
The three are assisted in their mission by two other organizations, the Down Syndrome Support Team of Washtenaw County and the Edward Ginsberg Center at U-M. These groups have helped the Saline group both financially and by providing facilities for certain activities.
The group of learners have mostly been together from an early age. They are “an extremely tight knit group,” Pearlstein said.
Since beginning the program they have read “Frankenstein,” “Robin Hood,” “The Snow Queen,” a collection of short stories and they are now over halfway through “Charlotte’s Web.” For them, as for the rest of us, stories transport them into another world and show them people who often have feelings like their own.
The reading and writing group meets nearly every Tuesday afternoon at Brewed Awakenings. The owner of the coffee shop, Kim Kaster has a son, Zach, who is part of the group.
In addition to the weekly meetings, they sometimes have special events or do art projects. For example, last fall the group painted tool sets with whimsical themes derived from stories they had read. These were sold at a holiday party held by the Down’s Syndrome Support Team.
The City of Saline is fortunate to have a dedicated group of parents and educators helping to meet the needs of the developmentally disabled. Saline is also fortunate to have these special learners who can provide different perspectives on life.