Prejudice against those who are different can be learned at a young age, but so, too, can understanding. At the Charles L. Spragg School in Egg Harbor City, the staff has made a point of educating students, who range from pre-K to third grade, on how to tolerate the differences of others.
On April 22, Spragg's more than 250 students took to the lot behind the school to participate in Blow Bubbles 4 Autism, an annual autism awareness event run by Ventnor-based group FACES 4 Autism.
Inclusion teacher Alysha Garcia, who along with colleague Denise DeGerolamo organized the school's participation in the event, said it's important to reach the kids while they're young.
"I think it's really important, especially in the school setting, that the students learn from a young age that people are different," Garcia said. "It doesn't mean any worse or better, it's just, they're different."
The students, many dressed in clothing or carrying signs emblazoned with slogans or symbols of autism awareness, filed out of their classrooms at 1 p.m. for the event. Once outside, they danced to music blaring over loudspeakers while their teachers passed out soap containers.
At 1:15, after a countdown led by Egg Harbor City Mayor Lisa Jiampetti, the students joined thousands of others across the country in blowing bubbles for one minute in an attempt to set the simultaneous bubble-blowing record.
In addition to Jiampetti, some Egg Harbor City police officers, City Council members and parents turned out to witness the event.
"A lot of the community came out and supported us, and I think it's great that as a school we involve the community in special events like autism awareness," Garcia said.
This was Spragg's second year participating in the program, which FACES established in 2003 as a way to engage kids and spread awareness of autism.
Last year, the school simply took part in the bubble-blowing event. This year, Garcia and DeGerolamo, whose jobs entail assisting the school's special needs students, expanded the program to encompass all of April, which is autism awareness month. Each morning through the month, students were given an autism fact during the announcements, and they also made autism-themed posters in art class.
Principal Adrienne Shulby said tolerance has been an important part of the curriculum at Spragg since before the school's participation in the Bubbles 4 Autism program. In addition to continuing with the program, Shulby said she hopes to add components each year, and next year hopes to spread awareness to parents as well.
"The parents that seem to know the most (about autism) are the ones who are dealing with it directly," Shulby said. "If we can make awareness via a community initiative, that would be fantastic."
While it would be nice to educate parents, the program rests on making students more aware and understanding of the differences of others.
If the response from the students who partake in the event is any indication, the school has been successful in its mission.
"I had one little girl come up to me today and say, 'Mrs. D, my cousin has autism,'" DeGerolamo said. "I said, 'Well, you can tell your cousin we're blowing bubbles for him. We care about him, and we want him to know that he's loved.'"
Contact Braden Campbell: