March 1st, 2012
This is Part One of a series, that I recently thought of, that will incorporate several of my planned 2012 articles. It’s focus will be on everyday residents originally from or currently residing in Central Jersey. These residents will be people who either have a strong multi-generational family connection to the heart of NJ, or those who have a big heart and go out of their way to help and give to others in our communities, state, or country. These are people who are The Heart of New Jersey.
First off, I will introduce you to a woman who has made it her mission to do as much as she can for those whom we hold so dear to our hearts: children. Not just any children, however, but special needs children.
Heather Leichtman is a 27 year-old teacher who has a passion for working with special-needs children. Her younger brother was diagnosed with a cognitive disability when she was is junior-high, and has been her inspiration ever since. Before then, she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. But ever since then, she knew that her chosen path would be one in which she could specifically help those with disabilities.
While in college, Heather volunteered in several capacities at the Summer NJ Special Olympics that she attended with Milltown’s Troop/Crew 33. This year, she will be raising money for the research of debilitating diseases by running two half-marathons over the next few months.
After high school, Heather attended Middlesex County College, where she earned her Associates Degree in Liberal Arts/Education in 2004. After that, she went to Kean for her Bachelors Degree in Special Education, and graduated in 2006. Almost immediately after her graduation, she was welcomed into a school as a Special Education Teacher. Currently, she is earning her Masters Degree in Behavioral Sciences, and plans on becoming a certified Behavioral Analyst
For the past six years now, Heather has been a Special Education teacher at the Morris Union Jointure Commission Developmental Learning Center, in Warren, NJ. There, she works with five children, ages five to eleven, on all manner of subjects. Heather instructs the students in everything from the basics of math, science, language arts/literacy, and social studies, to the more special-needs-oriented subjects such as daily living activities, learning readiness, play/leisure skills, and socialization. All of this is done in-line with the State of New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards, and based on a student’s individualized goals and objectives.
There are of course challenges involved in such a specialized field of education. Heather’s biggest challenge is teaching her students how to manage their behaviors in various settings. It may seem like something that comes naturally to us, but with special needs children, it’s much more complex. Many of them have problems when it comes to communicating and interacting with others in a social setting. For this reason, it is important for Heather to work closely with her student’s parents and assisting them with any strategies that she develops.
I recently asked her about integrating special needs children within regular schools, and how it benefits all parties involved, and this is what she had to say:
I agree with integrating special needs children in with typical children within the regular school (system). I believe that if the special needs child has an assistant to guide him/her to deal and learn the social aspect of typical peers and faded properly, it benefits the special needs child. It gives an opportunity for the special needs child and the typical children, in that they learn from each other. The special needs child had the opportunity to learn and imitate appropriate social skills from their typical peers. Also, it teaches the typical individual to accept people for who they are and to see that everyone is a unique person.
When asked about the advice she would give to a parent who has just learned that their child is special needs:
Start early intervention as soon as possible. Register with Division of Developmental Disabilities, and reach out to organizations and other parents within the community.
Heather undoubtedly has a stressful, some might say hectic, work load. Many teacher’s have classes of 15 or more students, but those students don’t have the same constant needs and care as special needs students do. To wind down after work, Heather relies on her commute to the gym to relax her. Also, she enjoys the little steps that her students make everyday, and that makes her eager to get up and get to work.
HER FREE TIME
After work, Heather has been going to the gym and training for two half-marathons that she will be running in over the next few months. She works out a total of six days a week, and her training involves weight-lifting, agility training, gradually building up her mileage, and fast-paced running routines. In her own words, “I love to run, and find it much more interesting when I accomplish my goals for great causes.”
The first half-marathon she will be running in is the New York City Half Marathon (13.1 miles) on March 18th, and she will be running for the foundation, Research Down Syndrome. Her second half-marathon will be a month and a half later, on May 6th (2 days after her birthday). This half-marathon (also 13.1 miles) is the New Jersey half-marathon for the Central New Jersey Brain Tumor Support Groups.
To help raise money for her causes, Heather will be holding a benefit-breakfast at the Milltown Applebee’s on Saturday, March 3rd, from 8am-10am. Tickets are $10 apiece for the breakfast. She will be selling 50/50 raffle tickets as well. Her goal is to raise $1500, so please do what you can to help support these great causes!
Over the next few years, Heather looks forward to becoming a Behavioral Analyst, not only for the school environment, but for the home environment as well. She is looking forward to entering more half-marathons (13.1 miles) and is planning on running in a couple full marathons (26.1 miles) as well.
For making it her professional goal, as well as her recreational goal, to help children with special needs, Heather is The Heart of New Jersey.