As they decorated Christmas cookies, designed ornaments and cut paper decorations on Friday afternoon, Forsyth Central High School students of all ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes sat together around tables in the school’s library.
Some sat in wheelchairs as they worked on the holiday crafts, or roamed the room to help with the frosting, scissors and paper. Others used sign language to talk with teachers and other students as they worked or watched the bustling activity silently from the sidelines — but all were smiling, happy and united.
Friday afternoon marked the end of Forsyth Central’s first-ever “Greatest Gift Week,” a celebration of “exceptional students” and special education programs at the school, culminating with a Christmas social.
“We work hard to make sure that Central has a family
atmosphere,” said Forsyth Central sophomore Mary Beth Lowe, who co-organized
the weeklong event. “It's important to include all students and this is just a
great way to make everyone feel accepted and loved and celebrated."
Throughout the week, Lowe and her partner, Emma Humphries, led the entire school in daily activities that paired special education and general education students with the goal of spreading awareness for the challenges and differences of special education students throughout the entire student body.
“They are a group in the school that doesn’t sit in our everyday classes ... They are on their own hall most of the day, so when we see them out and about, we don’t usually just go up to them just out of the blue, because we don't know who they are,” Humphries said. “So getting kids in the classroom with [special education students] and getting them around the school so we know who they are creates better connections and makes our Forsyth Central family even bigger."
On Monday, the school wore blue for Autism Spectrum Disorder. On Tuesday, they wore grey for Specific Learning Disability. Then green on Wednesday for Orthopedic Impairments and yellow on Thursday for Severe and Profound Intellectual Disabilities.
On Friday, they ended the week with a Christmas social and holiday colors.
"They've all been really excited for the holidays, so I think we chose a great week to do it," Lowe said.
Lowe and Humphries, who are both DECA students, say that they got the idea for the Greatest Gift Week when they were considering what they should present at the DECA state competition at the end of January.
Both said they have a deep passion for fostering relationships between their fellow students and wanted to use their DECA project as a way to make a difference at the school.
"This week has been good to learn about others differences,” Humphries said. “Because if we don’t learn about where others came from and what others are going through every day, then we're not going to know how to interact with them."
Teachers and administrators at Central say they are amazed and proud at the work that Lowe, Humphries and their fellow students put into the week, praising the unique spirit that allowed them to come together, unprompted by school officials.
"What made this special is that it was student-generated,” Central principal Mitch Young said after the Christmas social. “Our job is to create an atmosphere where kids feel free to take on things, and this is just another example of why I'm so proud of Central."
Lowe and Humphries’ DECA advisor, Jessica Parkhurst, said that after seeing what her students can do and how the school connected to the Greatest Gift Week, everyone would love to see it repeated throughout the school year to keep the spirit of inclusiveness going."We here at Central believe in being a family and being a community,” Parkhurst said. "They are a part of the family too."