CIF Community Member Shares Her Story

February 19, 2015

Going back to visit an old school can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. For one Center for Independent Futures community member, a recent visit to a former school was particularly meaningful, because she was invited to present on the very subject that challenged her as a student. Sarah Armour, a CIF participant and Auxiliary Board member, presented to fifth graders at The Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth, Ill. Her speech was part of the school's Ability Awareness Program, designed to foster a better understanding and appreciation of the learning differences in others.

CIF supported this year's program by consulting with Sears staff about lesson plans, helping them emphasize person-centered planning, and supporting Sarah to present about her successes and independence. Sarah worked with her CIF life skills tutor and Sharon Purdy, a member of CIF's School Consultation Staff, to prepare her presentation. "It could not have been more positive," Sharon said. "Afterward, the adults in the audience thanked her profusely. They said, 'You have changed the way we think about disabilities.'"

Thank you to Sears for including CIF in their Ability Awareness Program and to Sarah for being an incredible ambassador for the CIF community. Read on for Sarah's full story about her experience.

Sears Visit
By: Sarah Armour

A few weeks ago, I had one of the most amazing days in my recent memory! I spoke about my panic disorder to a fifth grade class at Joseph Sears School, my old grade school. I was asked to speak by the Center for Independent Futures, an organization that supports me.

I had conflicting feelings about speaking at Sears. When I was a student there, there wasn't much education about mental illness, so I don't think the teachers knew how to deal with my panic disorder. As a child I felt labeled by my disabilities, when I wanted nothing more than to be known as just Sarah. Despite bad memories, I made the decision to speak at Sears because I knew I can't change what happened in the past, but maybe I can change how kids with disabilities are treated in the future.

The night before the presentation there were many thoughts running through my mind. I was excited to share my story, but I feared seeing old teachers that would make me feel uncomfortable. I was concerned that my story would not connect with the audience.

I awoke the morning of my presentation thinking, I am who I am and if they don't accept me that is on them. The presentation was in the multipurpose room where I had been many times before when I was a student at Sears School. Being in that room made me feel like that misunderstood little girl who was defined by her panic disorder. But, I kept reminding myself that I was there as professional and a self-advocate.

As the fifth grade class filed into to the room, I realized that I knew some of the kids from when I was a teacher's assistant at a local preschool. Once I had I realized I knew some of the children it made me apprehensive about sharing my challenges. I was scared to open up to them because they knew me from the past. Instead I thought - how powerful it would be for them to learn that a former teacher of theirs has struggles just like anyone else does? Then, I realized I knew one of the teachers from my time at the school! This teacher had always taken the time to understand where I was coming from when I was her student. Seeing her helped me remember that for every person in my past that didn't understand me, there was someone who believed in my potential.

As I read my speech to the children and teachers, I saw something from the audience that I didn't expect: respect, understanding, compassion, empathy, and a true interest in my story! When I finished my speech I heard the audience's applause. However, what truly impacted me the most were the little eyes looking back at me, each trying to connect with me on a deeper level. It was at that moment that I knew my panic disorder isn't what defines me - it's my courage, my strengths, and my ability to connect with others that makes me truly Sarah.


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