A TV Shout Out to Special Ed Teachers, Students and Parents!

My cousin Jeanette Martinez, who lives in North Carolina, recently e-mailed me a news item about the appearance later this month of her daughter Jessica on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. What makes this unusual is that Jessica, 25, has Down Syndrome. She, along with several other young people with special needs, will be featured in the movie, A Smile as Big as the Moon, on Sunday, Jan. 29, at 9 p.m. on ABC.

The TV movie starring John Corbett is the inspiring story of how in 1988, Ken Kersjes, a high school football coach and special education teacher, convinced both National Aeronautics and Space Administration and his school district to enable a group of 19 special education students to attend NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville, AL.

The Hallmark production is based on Kersjes’ 2003 book of the same name. Although Space Camp is a competitive program for talented science students, Kersjes and his colleague, Robynn McKinney, overcame many obstacles to gain authorization to send their students — whose learning disabilities included Tourette’s syndrome, autism, Down Syndrome and dyslexia — to Space Camp.

Jeanette said she learned about the movie when a friend told her that there was going to be a casting call in the area. Initially the director wasn’t looking for young people with special needs, but rather actors to portray them.

“I sent them a picture of Jessica and said that she doesn’t have to act it because she lives it every day,” Jeanette recalled.

Jessica and her Mom were soon called to meet the director, James Sadwith.

“When we were there the director enjoyed meeting us so much that he decided to go a different route and use actual special needs kids instead of just people who acted as though they had special needs,” Jeanette said. “He asked if we knew any other kids who could be a part of it.”

Jessica is a student at the Adult Day Activity program for special needs students at IQuOLIOC Inc. in Jacksonville, NC. Jeanette asked IQuOLIOC owner and director Tammy Cleveland to assist with getting more students, and five classmates were selected to appear in the film.

Cleveland accompanied the six students for a month-long filming in Wilmington, N.C., and at The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL. They participated in space flight simulations and received their own space suits, which they were allowed to bring home. Working with the film’s stars, Corbett and Jessica Schram, the young people were able to successfully manage 12 to 14-hour days.

Jeanette said that she hopes the experience will encourage Jessica and others with special needs to pursue their dreams.

“I never acted in anything before but I was happy,” Jessica said.

“It was the experience of a lifetime, and when Jessica came back she said ‘I want to do this again,’” Jeanette recalled. “That tells you how wonderful everyone was. Working with kids in general can be hard and special needs kids can be really difficult, but love and compassion was shown to all of them.”

It’s not easy to be a special education teacher. But Ken Kersjes demonstrates the power of a teacher who believes in his students.

Neither is it easy to be a special education parent, especially when your child has Down Syndrome. Jeanette Martinez exemplifies the power of a parent who believes in her child’s ability to reach for the stars – and succeed. Finally, congratulations to the actual youngsters who participated in Space Camp, and the actors who took up the challenge to faithfully recreate their story.

Be sure to watch!



One Comment on “A TV Shout Out to Special Ed Teachers, Students and Parents!”

  1. Bill Stinson says:

    Great Movie. It was stiring.

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