Tag Archives: Merrily Bodell

Unsung Heroes #232

March is National Disability Awareness Month.  

And 5 women long involved in the Westport Public School’s special education program have suggested 3 people as Unsung Heroes, for their tremendous work in that field.

Kate Frascella, Kate Grijns, Sivan Hong, Becky Martin and Abby Tolan write:

Merrily Bodell, Stacie Curran and Sharuna Mahesh have actively served the special education community in our town for well over a decade. Principally they’ve been longtime leaders and members of the Special Education PTA, but they’ve also advocated for people with disabilities throughout our town.

They have forged a path forward full of opportunity and promise for all kids with disabilities in our schools, and after they graduate.

Sharuna Mahesh

SpEd PTA is a committee operating under the Westport PTA Council that meets monthly with Westport school district administrators.

SpEd PTA — comprised of parent representatives from each school, plus out-placed students — advocates for our students, communicates parental concerns, and conveys vital information from the administration to SpEd families.

In their time on SpEd PTA, which began when their children were in pre-school at Stepping Stones and continues nearly 16 years later, Merrily, Stacie and Sharuna have advocated passionately for their children and ours. Most recently, they played a key role establishing the transitions program “Connections” that keeps students in Westport after graduation in a job training and life skills program.

These women push for the improvement of services for SpEd students and the education of families new to special education through newsletters and programming, like “Understanding your IEP.” They have led dozens of monthly “Sip ‘n Chat” conversations for SpEd parents.

Merrily Bodell

They promote fun for our kids by establishing SpEd PTA’s Community Fun Day, promoting opportunities like Challenger Baseball, and working with many other local organizations to offer programs for kids with special needs.

All 3 women also devote considerable time to causes that create opportunities for children and adults with disabilities in Westport and beyond. Stacie and Sharuna are active with the Remarkable Theater; Sharuna also dedicates her talents to Westport Book Sale Ventures, both of which create work opportunities for people with disabilities.

Stacie serves on Westport’s Commission on People with Disabilities. Merrily is on the board of directors of School the World, a community-driven nonprofit committed to solving extreme poverty through the power of education.

Stacie Curran

Perhaps most importantly, all 3 have offered their constant hope, reassurance and advice to parents struggling with new diagnoses or challenges.

Becky Martin, current SpEd PTA co-chair, recalls wondering in a meeting if she should be pushing her child to accomplish more academically, given her challenges.

“Sharuna looked me in the eye and said, ‘always push.’ I still hear her saying that in the back of my mind sometime. I hold it as a constant reminder of my job as a parent of a child with challenges,” says Becky.

We will protect their children’s privacy, but they too should be recognized for their trailblazing and hard work that has led to better education and services for all of our children here in Westport.

Congratulations Merrily, Stacie and Sharuna. What a meaningful way to honor National Disability Awareness Month!

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email 06880blog@gmail.com)

Talking SMAK With Special Needs Kids

Parents of special needs children spend countless hours with educators and other professionals, crafting IEPs — Individualized Educational Plans.

But when school is out, a small group of kids and 2 very committed young teachers work together on another IEP. They call it an Individualized Exercise Plan.

And boy, is it fun!

Frankie D’Souza and Jenn Fittipaldi are the speech pathologists who founded SMAK (“Specialized Movement Active Kids”). And just as the acronym does not single out “special education,” the program offers this sometimes-isolated group of youngsters a chance to participate in an activity all kids love.

Jenn Fittipaldi and Frankie D'Souza, at Fitness Works.

Jenn Fittipaldi and Frankie D’Souza, at Fitness Works.

Frankie and Jenn have 3 classes, with 6 children each. One meets on Tuesday afternoons at Fitness Works, the gym underneath Granola Bar. Two others take place on Saturdays, at Crossfit in Norwalk.

The kids — many of them on the autism spectrum — do push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and box step-ups; use weights for squats and dead lifts; perform handstands and sprints; push sleds, and work with medicine balls and kettle bells.

They’re called “exercises.” But the group — ages 5 to 15 — love them.

“It’s so rewarding!” says Jenn, who notes that special education youngsters often have fewer opportunities than others for social and physical activities. SMAK provides both.

“They really get stimulated,” Frankie adds. “A lot of them have social anxiety, on top of other issues. But they socialize in the gym. They’re active, and so proud of themselves. Plus the release of endorphins make them feel really good.”

She notes with pride a boy who seldom showed emotion. Yet he grins broadly while exercising. “That’s the first time I ever saw him smile!” his sister said. Excitedly, she snapped a photo.

All kids -- like those in the file photo shown here -- enjoy the benefits of working out.

All kids — like those in the file photo shown here — enjoy the benefits of working out.

When they go back to school, Frankie says, they feel “a real sense of commonality” with their SMAK friends. Without realizing it, they’ve worked not only on fitness, but following multi-step oral directions, taking turns, initiating and maintaining conversations with peers, and vocabulary.

Merrily Bodell is the parent of 2 special needs youngsters. A member of the school district’s Special Education Parents PTA, she can’t say enough about what SMAK has meant for her kids.

“Frankie was my son’s speech pathologist at Greens Farms Elementary School,” Merrily says. “She’s so sweet and loving.”

Her son can’t participate in team sports, so the chance to be physically active in the gym, doing partner activities, has been fantastic. Her son feels engaged, and enjoys socializing.

Merrily tells the story of a boy who repeats words or phrases, hour after hour. When he’s with Frankie and Jenn in the gym, he never does.

Happily, everyone around — his new friends, his parents, and Frankie and Jenn – smile through the SMAK sessions too.