At 19, Russell Reddick has a love for sharks, video games and Arby's roast beef sandwiches. However, nothing brings him more excitement than checking out Shark Week at the Georgia Aquarium.
Russell was born with expressive autism, a language disorder where the individual struggles with using proper words to express his ideas and needs to others. In some cases, receptive language is not affected -meaning that the person is still able to understand and process language.
To keep him exposed to the open environment, Russell keeps himself busy working part-time at Walmart and participating in programs at the hospital. He also joins his grandfather on the weekends to sell tomatoes at the local farmer's market. Along with attending public school, Russell also receives lessons and guidance from Dr. Ossie Thomas-Bell, a retired director of special education.
Having worked with Russell since the third grade, Thomas-Bell sees him more as a son than a student. It was their close relationship that convinced Russell's mother Carol to have Thomas-Bell continue teaching him over the years.
"I may be a retiree, but in 55 years of education, Russell has always been my favorite student," said Thomas-Bell. "So I give my time to him now."
Thomas-Bell takes a different approach with Russell, teaching him in a real-world setting. His tasks include learning independent skills like a morning routine of shower, shave and making breakfast. Other skills include reading and comprehension, all of which are applied to real-world circumstances.
"He can read, but getting the words out can frustrate him sometimes," said Thomas-Bell. "But he has come a long way. I believe that with enough time and effort with children, they can learn. And Russell wants to learn."
Russell has been a friend to the Newton County Library for two years. He started out in janitorial services, cleaning the facility and dusting the shelves with thorough care. This year, Russell has moved to taking care of the children's section, cleaning and alphabetizing the books.
"Russell has been a big help to us," added Head of Children Services Carol Durusau. "He helps keeps things clean and in order. He's always happy to be at work and he's always so pleasant."
Each morning, Russell arrives in the juvenile section and retrieves a cart of returned books. With intense diligence and focus, he sounds off the alphabet to himself as he sorts the books. When he finishes all the carts in the section, he begins his dusting duties. Later, Thomas-Bell sits with him and spends the latter part of their time together building his reading and comprehension skills.
Thomas-Bell noticed Russell's progress last summer when she gave him an alphabetizing assignment using index cards. As Russell quickly found his groove with the assignment, Thomas-Bell decided he could apply the skill with library books.
"When he's working here, you can see the wheels turning," said Thomas-Bell. "He may not be able to express his actions to you, but he can perform his tasks."
After their time at the library, Thomas-Bell takes Russell back to his home, where she continues to help him with certain chores that will build independence. These necessary chores include separating his clothes and fixing meals for himself.
"(Alphabetizing) is a skill he can transfer into real-world situations," said Thomas-Bell. "By the time he has to attend a vocational school, he should have all the necessary skills to function on his own."
As Russell enters the new school year as a senior, Thomas-Bell is confident of his ever-expanding set of real-world skills. In two more years, Russell may have to attend a vocational school, which requires learning and comprehension skills. Russell can perform these skills, Thomas-Bell said, but requires assignments to keep him on a routine.
"When I started teaching in 1979, the schools did not have community-based learning. Children with different needs have a hard time transferring information from a book to a real setting. But if you teach them in a real setting, they don't have to transfer much."