Wake Forest Mom is Finalist in IKEA's Contest To Improve the Lives of Others


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When Wake Forest mom Melissa Matthews was 18 weeks pregnant, she found out her baby had Down Syndrome. From that moment, the former kindergarten teacher says she worried about how her child would transition to school, a concern that turned out to be well-founded as she hit many roadblocks to getting him to a place where he could flourish. But now that her son, Aidan, is 3 years old, she speaks with joy about his achievements and his love of school, and she's hoping that by winning an IKEA contest, she can help other children like him feel as happy about learning.

One of five national finalists in IKEA's Life Improvement Sabbatical Contest, Matthews says that, if she wins the grand prize year-long sabbatical worth $100,000, she will use the money to help kids with disabilities and their teachers gain access to the type of cutting-edge technology Aidan has at the Frankie Lemmon School, in Raleigh. The winner of the IKEA contest, which is designed to help people improve the lives of others, will be decided by the public, who can vote for their favorite project at www.thelifeimprovementproject.com. The finalist whose project garners the most online votes through Dec. 23 will take the grand prize. The winner is expected to be announced on Jan. 17, 2012.

For Matthews, winning the contest would translate into spreading joy among kids with special needs by helping them to communicate. Four months ago, when Aidan turned 3, he couldn't walk or talk and was still eating soft baby food. It was hard to find a preschool that would accept him. Now, since Aidan has been attending the Frankie Lemmon School, he can say a couple of words, is walking, and is a different child, Matthews says.

"One his first words was schooooooool," she says, noting that he says the word with relish. "He is phenomenally a different child in the four months he's been there. He can communicate."

Teachers at the Frankie Lemmon School use iPads with pictures to help children express themselves. Kids who can't talk use the iPads to touch pictures of whatever they would like to say, and the speech reader on the iPad reads what the child wants from the teacher. On a visit to school this past Halloween, Matthews says Aidan used the iPad to tell her he wanted to make his pumpkin have a scary face, a feat that amazed and thrilled her. Another child in the school whose doctors had said he would never talk is now communicating in sentences using the iPad, Matthews says. The last time she was in the school, that child interrupted his teacher, who was talking with Matthews, to ask if he could have a bottle of bubbles sitting nearby.

"It was so cool that they (teachers) have figured out a way to give these kids a voice so they could be as insistent with it as any other child that age," Matthews says.

If she wins the money, Matthews says she would expand the use of technology in the school. Right now, there is one iPad for every seven kids.  "When they want to ask their teacher for something, they wait in line until their turn," she says. "I would love it if they didn't have to share."

Matthews says she'd also use the project money to visit student teachers at local universities and expose them to the technology being used to help special needs kids at Frankie Lemmon School, so they could go out and use the same techniques. And she would create a website to share Frankie Lemmon's curriculum and invite other teachers across the country to share their own ideas for helping special-needs children.

"It's hard to find that right now," she says. "I've been on the computer looking and looking to see, and there aren't very many teacher websites for the use of technology specifically for kids with special needs."

The winner of the contest will also have an opportunity to meet Martha Beck, author of "Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic," and someone who changed Matthews' life. When Matthews was pregnant with Aidan, she says took comfort in reading the book, where Beck talked about her own experience raising a child with Down Syndrome.

"One of the things Beck said in the book was, when she looked for a placement for her son, Adam, that she looked for a place where she felt he could experience unconditional love and joy," Matthews says. "And that was my filter when I looked for a preschool for Aidan."

When she first entered Frankie Lemmon, she knew she'd hit the right place when the director came running out of her office to give Aidan a kiss and then praised him for knowing his name. "Nobody said, 'What can Aidan not do?' the whole time we were there. They celebrated what he could do," she recalls.

"As a parent, it was a gift of acceptance, a place where I knew he would be loved," she says. "It gave me the gift of expectation as well because, until that point, I didn't really know what Aidan would be capable of. But we saw children on our tour that had similar disabilities to Aidan that were not only talking and walking but were also beginning to read and were playing musical instruments and were playing like the other kids."

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