When sisters Jessie Alexzandrikc and Sarah Mace were toddlers, their house burned down. The fire killed their older brother and left Sarah with scars.
But it left both girls with more than physical damage.
As the years passed, Jessie, 18, and Sarah, 17, who were adopted by different families after the fire but remained close, struggled to find ways to cope in school.
When they had to focus on a project for their Human Services class, part of the Stafford Technical Center, they knew they wanted to shed more light on helping teachers help students who had experienced some sort of childhood trauma.
“We wanted to make a difference in the community of teaching kids with emotional trauma issues,” Sarah said. “We wanted people to be aware of what children struggle with.”
The sisters did research on how to better help children advance in the school system after trauma by talking with psychologists and reading countless articles on the subject.
One of the most useful tools they had though, was their own personal experience.
“I was a happy kid on the surface,” said Jessie, who changed her name in order to re-establish her own identity. “But I was actually angry, always getting in trouble at school and hurting myself because I had too much emotion and no way to deal with it.”
Their research found that students were more productive when teachers made connections with them and presented different options for their emotional behavior instead of simply correcting their behavior that in turn diminishes feelings.
Sarah was once in class watching a documentary involving a man who set himself on fire.
“That was my trigger,” she said. “My brain just kind of shut down and I don’t even remember the rest of that day.”
Sarah and Jessie have the option of leaving the classroom and walking the hallway in order to calm down and collect themselves whenever they are “triggered” by something. In this case, the sisters are triggered by association with fire and extreme stress.
They started presenting their poster board project to schools in the area, including an education class at Castleton State College.
The next step was the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) states competition. The FFCLA is a national leadership conference that allows students and educators to come together to present projects on different areas of Family Consumer Science. Their project received a score that allowed them to compete at the national level in Texas earlier this month.
There, they presented their project findings and personal experiences to a panel of judges, surrounded by over 4,200 other high school students from around the nation, all competing for a gold medal.
“They were nervous,” said Sue Densmore, their FCCLA advisor and teacher of Human Services at Stafford. “But I knew they would do well, they’re both dedicated students who have overcome so much.”
After two days of waiting for the judges to decide and after educational workshops, seminars and a ghost tour through San Antonio, Sarah and Jessie got the news that they had won the gold award for their project.
“We were so nervous, but so excited to win,” Jessie said. The girls had to leave their beloved poster board in Texas because they didn’t have the extra money to ship it home, but not before removing the photos and data reports as reminders of their work.
“We just want teachers to know that there is sometimes more going on than you can see,” Sarah said. “So don’t judge before you know a child’s story.”
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