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Graduation 2019: How working with special needs students opened South Forsyth senior's eyes
Jefferson Stepp 1 052919 web
South Forsyth senior Jefferson Stepp, second from left, poses with friends, Carli, Carter and Felix. - photo by Brian Paglia

This story appears in the Graduation 2019 special section.

Jefferson Stepp’s main interests entering South Forsyth High School were basketball, video games and hanging out with friends.

Then one of Stepp’s friends introduced him to their little sister with special needs.

Something moved Stepp, and that year, as a sophomore, he started volunteering in South’s special education department. His involvement over the next three years left an indelible impact on the now-senior and changed his perception of those with special needs.

“I thought [special needs kids] were all going to be the same,” Stepp said, “but no, they all have different wild personalities that I love.”

Stepp’s involvement was fairly basic at first. Unfamiliar with the special needs community, Stepp modeled his interactions after one of the teachers, Jon Arant.

“He was just completely normal,” Stepp said. “That’s how I decided to be.”

Stepp quickly grew more comfortable. He started accompanying one student, Felix, around the school as they delivered mail to classrooms.

“We just walk around and talk about how his day’s been,” Stepp said. “He loves soccer. He wants to be a ref for his little brother who plays soccer.”

Stepp’s involvement with the school’s special education department culminated this past school year when he was an integral part of an ambitious project to help Carter Johannessen and Carli Walters, two of South’s special education students, travel to and attend the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, N.C., through Dream On 3, a sports nonprofit organization providing kids with special needs an opportunity “to live out their ultimate dream,” according to its website.

Stepp and a handful of other students were tabbed to be a part of the school’s Junior Dream Team that planned activities related to the project. They met weekly starting in August to brainstorm the project’s two major promotional and fundraising events — a student-faculty basketball game in November and silent disco night in February. They created T-shirts and wristbands. They wrote a rap song and filmed a music video. They started and managed a GoFundMe account.

A week after the silent disco, the whole school gathered for a pep rally to send off Johannessen and Walters.

“It was surreal,” Stepp said. “We had talked about it and everything. When it actually happens, it hits.”

Stepp followed Johannessen and Walters’ trip on social media with equal parts anticipation and satisfaction. He saw Carter meet NBA players and get treated to hamburgers and Carli take pictures with NBA cheerleaders.

“They looked like they were having so much fun,” Stepp said.

The experience reinforced for Stepp a lesson he learned over the past three years of being involved in South’s special education department.

“It opened up my eyes to different parts of the world that I was blind to,” Stepp said. “... As terrible as this sounds, I thought [special needs students] were all the same, like they didn’t have any kind of personality or anything.

“Then, when I met them, they filled a hole in my heart. I love them.”

Stepp is heading off to Statesboro this fall to attend Georgia Southern University. He plans to get his four-year degree, enlist in the Air Force and then attend medical school to become either a sports medicine doctor or a physician assistant, he said.

But when Stepp returns home for breaks next school year, he knows one group of people he’ll be sure to visit.

“It’s been a great ride,” Stepp said, “and I’m definitely coming back here to visit them.”