CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A child’s first steps are a cherished milestone for many parents, a hallmark moment and stepping stone to greater things.
For Staff Sgt. Jeremy Cooney, who returned from Afghanistan in December, there was the possibility his son would never take those first steps. But unbeknownst to Cooney, his six-year-old son Michael, whose cerebral palsy had doctors predicting he would never walk, defied expectations. When Cooney returned to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune at the end of his deployment, Michael strode into the surprised embrace of his father’s arms, and he continues to make strides today.
The feat was a surprise to more than Michael’s father. The first inkling Cooney’s son could walk came after Michael stood up on his own one day. Now, with the school year at Tarawa Terrace Elementary School coming to a close, Michael’s progress continues to show marked improvement. In fact, where once doctors predicted Michael would never walk, the aid of his teachers, therapists, family and his own determination allowed him to not only walk, but to join his classmates as they celebrated another successful year at Tarawa Terrace Elementary School with games, races and fun-filled water events. What is more, his progress allowed him to continue on with his classes.
“It gives him something to set his own personal goals,” said Leigh Anne Kapiko, the principle at Michael’s elementary school. “The environment he’s in is a regular first-grade classroom, and he has support in there to help him access the curriculum, being able to see it, hear it and experience it just like all the other kids. It gives him a sense he can do it and makes him want to try harder to do it.”
As Cooney was serving in Afghanistan, Michael was surprising his mother and teachers with his new found mobility. Over the following months, his teachers, family and therapists continued to work with Michael and develop his motor skills. His father was none the wiser.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” said Katherine Guiney-Olsen, a special education teacher who worked extensively with Michael, “but more importantly, you don’t do it alone. You have a team. So much relies on the regular education teacher: How you work together, how you make it consistent, how you lay it out.” Guiney-Olsen also said, “It’s an incredible feeling because we don’t get to see it every day nor do we get everyone on the same page, when everybody rises to the occasion where you say, ‘Ok, let’s try this today.”
Michael’s condition not only limited his physical mobility, it greatly affected his ability to participate in class work, communicate and participate with his peers. The doctors’ original diagnose suggested not only would Michael not walk but speech and many other abilities would also be out of reach. However, once Michael’s mobility improved, new doors began to open to him, and his zeal to participate increased, said Kapiko. The school’s staff continued to push Michael’s development, experimenting with new technologies and techniques as his abilities progressed.
“We see him change almost daily,” said Guiney-Olsen. “He (grew) to what you see today, which is a fully included first-grade boy who’s on the regular curriculum as any other child and treated like any other child. I don’t know how you put it in perspective. It’s pretty phenomenal.”
The school’s staff and Michael’s teachers worked from the beginning to develop plans to help his progress and accommodate his needs in the school. Government supported policies directed at helping students with special needs, the efforts of Michaels family, surgeries and the daily efforts of the staff at TTES continued to support Michael’s efforts in school. This included the use of special speech, reading, mobility and self-sufficiency devices, which were used to help Michael give voice to his thoughts and grasp for the freedom of movement he could see in his peers.
“That’s what education is about,” said Kapiko. “Every day we work on unlocking the world for kids, making it accessible for all kids. Just because his differences seemed to be more profound, the same principle applied. You do all you can to help kids access everything they can every day.”
Still, none could have predicted his rate of development, which his instructors could see changing weekly. By the end of the 2012 school year, Michael’s abilities to interact with his fellow students and participate in school progressed to running and playing alongside his peers, even racing tricycles during the school’s field-day activities. Each day he returns home, said Kapiko, his parents say he is physically exhausted, tired out by another day of pushing and striving with his increasing physical freedoms.