By the very nature of her profession, special education teacher Gina Swords performs heroic acts on a daily basis. This past January she took it to the next level with Heritage High School's first annual "Dancing with Our Stars Winter Ball 2010."
The idea was conceived during a meeting last year when a student's mother broke down in tears because she didn't believe she would ever see her daughter get married, have children or even attend prom. "That moment broke my heart as I thought about the beautiful memories so many of us carry from high school. Many of our students with special needs never get the opportunity to create these memories that make high school so special for all of us," she said.
Swords began mobilizing troops to give her beloved students an experience none would soon forget. "The momentum was amazing. So many colleagues, students, and community partners joined in with overwhelming generosity...even Sheriff Wigington donated his time to serve punch and wash dishes," she said. Swords was able to stage an event complete with prom gowns, tuxedos, food, portrait packages, etc. with all items donated for every special needs student.
The ripple effect was felt in the HHS community. Over 100 students got in on the act volunteering their time to make the night special. "They knew all of the efforts would change the lives of their friends. No ‘star' as they called it missed one song without a dance partner," said Swords.
"Mrs. Sword's love for the students is totally contagious. Her idea was beyond our dreams, and she made it a reality. Even my students said they liked it better than any other prom because they could just be themselves. She will do anything for her kids. It was the most powerful night in education I've ever experienced," said Caroline Ingle, English teacher and Teacher of the Year at HHS. A feeling echoed by another colleague, Marion Hannanhan, "In my five years of being an educator, it was my most memorable experience."
The bonding between Swords' students with disabilities and traditional HHS students has grown since the event. "Sometimes we just need to throw a party to change lives. To this very day, these students are still referred to as ‘Stars' in the hallway, receiving high-fives and being treated with fame. They have made many friendships that will last a lifetime," said Swords.
Swords knows first hand the lasting impact that interaction can have. She started down the path to her calling when her second grade teacher partnered her with a special needs classmate. "These students bring so much love, happiness, and laughter to my life every day... They teach me something new every day! I learn as much from them as they do for me," she said.
Everyone has their strengths. Generally, these are concentrated in one or a few areas of life - mental, physical, spiritual, artistic, etc. Rarely are all these attributes mastered, much less at an early age. Erik Lauritsen, a Heritage High School senior, is an exceptional example.
Though accepted at Georgia Tech where his older sister attends, Lauritsen, who plans on majoring in environmental engineering, chose the University of Georgia because of another passion - music. He enjoys playing acoustic guitar and composition.
As a line one doubles varsity tennis player, Lauritsen helped lead his team to their fourth straight regional title. "Erik is a loyal and determined student athlete. He's a leader on our team because you can always count on him to handle any responsibility," said Coach Chuck Landy.
Beside his endeavors in the classroom and on the courts, Lauritsen is active in Young Life, a non-denominational Christian ministry, and his church youth group at Rockdale Baptist. "Erik is an outstanding Christian young man who's a strong leader in our student ministry using his many musical talents and gifts to lead people in worshipping our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," said his Youth Pastor Mark Walker.
During his senior spring break, Lauritsen traveled to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti with a friend from the Dominican Republic helping build housing for missionaries and aid workers. This summer, he will return to Jamaica for his fourth visit to the Caribbean Christian Center for the DeafWhile there, he does mostly manual labor playing with the children during any down time. "The kids are just amazing. You always see people change when you're down there...one of my friends, a big tough guy, cried when we left," he said.
Lauritsen credits his support system for the young man he's become. "My parents have kept me in check, but also I surround myself with good friends, ones that will make good choices and keep me accountable. It's been a pretty good system for keeping out of trouble," he said. Add self-awareness and forethought to his growing list of accomplishments.