LAFAYETTE — Years may separate Comeaux High teacher Brian Watkins and Lafayette High senior Justin Edwards, but the two hold tight to a common goal of advocating for the disabled.
Both were recognized this month with the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs’ 2014 Governor’s Outstanding Leadership in Disabilities Awards — Watkins as educator of the year and Edwards as youth of the year — for the inspiration they provide others.
“It was humbling that I’d get an award for simply doing my best because that’s what I’ve done through high school,” said Edwards, who is 17 and is legally blind.
His blindness is due to a birth defect that affected the development of his retina. He wears glasses and is still unable to see things that are too small or too far away, so he sits in the front of his classes and sometimes uses the camera of an iPad to help enlarge text.
Edwards has a 4.0 grade-point average and is senior class president. On the Friday before the Thanksgiving break, he was preparing for a debate tournament, and the following day, the Eagle Scout planned to clean up the neighborhood around his church.
“He works harder than anybody I know. He’s one of those kids I know I’ll be reading about,” said Edwards’ teacher, Shari Holleman.
The senior wants to attend Howard University or Tulane University and ultimately become a lawyer to advocate for the disabled.
“I know I’ll spend a long time in school, but it’s worth it to me because there are a lot of things that need attention,” Edwards said.
He said it is important for people with insight into the challenges of the disabled to be advocates to explain the best ways to provide help and to point out what doesn’t work.
“We’re able,” Edwards said. “If you’re innovative, you can find ways to help us adapt.”
Edwards said he thinks he’d be a very different person if he didn’t have his disability.
“My vision has made me who I am,” he said. “My challenge made me want to work above and beyond. It takes me about two hours or longer to do things compared to someone with 20/20 vision. I call it God’s greatest blessing because it made me determined, compassionate and an advocate for others.”
Watkins was led to his career as a special education teacher through his experiences with his son, Logan, 16, who was born with spina bifida.
“He changed my life and my wife’s life for good the day he was born,” Watkins said.
He and his wife were faced with a difficult question one day when attending their daughter’s softball game. Logan, who is in a wheelchair, asked when he could play.
The couple did some research and helped start a Little League Challenger team. That launched them into creating a foundation that provides children with disabilities access to the same sports and activities as other kids their ages — cheerleading, bowling, martial arts or whatever else they fancy.
When Logan wanted to get involved with Boy Scouts, Watkins took on the role of scoutmaster and began adapting activities to each boy’s needs. Some were in wheelchairs, had autism or Down syndrome, and Watkins tailored the activities to their abilities.
While working with other people’s children, Watkins said parents frequently asked him where he taught school.
“I was in sales for 15 years,” he said. “It got me thinking about what I was doing with my life and what I enjoy doing. I could see these kids excelling and striving for bigger and better things.”
Watkins went back to college in 2009 to become certified to teach special education and started at Paul Breaux Middle School. He stayed for two years and then took a job at Comeaux High last year.
At Comeaux, he teamed up with art teacher Simone McCrocklin, who has a child with autism, to create an art class that partners senior students with special education students.
Shortly after 8 a.m. on one Monday morning in November, the students quickly partnered up and got to the business at hand — a papier-mâché project crafted by manipulating a large water bottle into a shape of the students’ choice.
“We’re going to do something a little gross today, but it’s not going to harm you, I promise,” McCrocklin told the group of students. She advised her seniors that they likely will need to cut the plastic for their partners because it could be difficult.
The room filled with chatter as students talked out what they wanted to make.
“It’s hard to cut, but once I’m done, you’re going to papier-mâché,” Kamille Kelley, 17, told Davon Floyd, 16, who was trying to decide whether he wanted to make a pig or cow.
“We’ll see how it comes out,” Kelley said with a laugh.
As Kelley shaped the plastic, Floyd said, “It’s a cat because it has a big head.”
“Whatever it turns out to be, it’ll be. Right, Davon?” Kelley asked him.
They both giggled and Kelley asked another of Watkins’ students, Jonah Bares, 17, what he thought their animal looked like.
“It kind of looks like a cat,” Bares said.
“See, I told you!” Floyd said and smiled at Kelley. More giggles followed.
Kelley said she was interested in joining the class because she knew she wanted to be a teacher. Now, she knows she wants to be a special education teacher.
“I love the innocence they have and the way they view the world,” Kelley said. “To have an impact on them is an amazing thing. If I could, I’d spend all day with these kids.”
Across the table from Bares, Elizabeth Brown, 15, playfully put her fingers in the bowl of flour and water and rubbed it on the arm of 17-year-old senior Mary Evans. Evans laughed. A giggle from Brown followed.
At the beginning of the school year, Brown wouldn’t interact with other students, McCrocklin said as she watched the two young women work together.
“It’s fun to see Brian’s kids come out of their shell,” she said.
The class isn’t about the art, Watkins said.
“It’s how the kids connect with each other,” Watkins said. “It’s about the socialization.”
Twice a week, Watkins takes students off-campus to work sites as part of the school system’s community skills program. This day, three students help tidy the lobby area at the Ramada Inn as two others help staff fold laundry under the supervision of another school system employee.
As part of the off-campus trips, the students also make grocery store trips where they make a list and learn how to budget or visit clothing stores where they learn how to find the right clothing sizes for them.
They also learn more about the community through visits to cultural sites and work on community projects. Soon, they’ll repaint the Comeaux High sign to spruce it up for the school.
Adapting activities so the students can stay involved in the community is one of Watkins’ passions.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.