Posted in Autism, Down syndrome, Education and Special Needs, Recreation/Leisure and Special Needs

Blog #97~ Being Nick’s Peer Partner


Blog #97~Being Nick’s Peer Partner

This week, I am very excited to share this piece written by Ryan Solomon.  Ryan was Nick’s peer partner at Metea Valley High School.  The Peer Partner Program operates in conjunction with the Adapted Physical Education Department.  It allows selected students the opportunity to provide mentorship to students with a variety of abilities.  Ryan’s experience with Nick, (who has Down syndrome and autism) inspired him to write this essay for college consideration. 

Essay by Ryan Solomon:

“My application lists my three–‐sport varsity achievements –including all–‐conference and all–‐academic in soccer, basketball and baseball.  You might think I’m a competitive, insensitive jock. So, you may find it ironic that I applied to “opt out” of PE class. Two years ago I was selected as a “Peer Partner” with 26 other students to assist special needs students in Adaptive PE.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience – especially last year. I’ve learned that I am sensitive and caring from my yearlong association with a person that has had a significant influence on me, my “Best Buddy” Nick Unnerstall.

Nick is severely mentally challenged and barely able to speak. Last year, when I was “peer partnered” to swim with Nick, I was afraid it would be a daunting task. Before we met, I expected to see a sad child scared of the school’s enormous swimming pool.  Instead, when I got to the pool, Nick, wearing his floaters, jumped in fearlessly.  We swam together the entire period.  The look on his face was refreshing–‐full of curiosity and wonder.  His smile beamed ear to ear.  The instructor thought it would be difficult for me to handle Nick daily -from preparing to swim, swimming and getting him to class –but that was not the case!  Her concerns disappeared as Nick and I bonded nearly instantly.  We showed up excited to swim every day.  Swimming was the one thing that Nick looked forward to each day.

After class I’d help Nick to lunch.  We’d just smile even though no words were shared.  Simple motions and expressions allowed us to communicate.  This daily routine put my life into perspective.  I used to think it was tough having homework and a game on the same night; dealing with a sports injury; or getting caught up with drama among friends.  None of this compares to what Nick goes through every day and for the rest of his life.

Through Nick, I’ve learned to appreciate all that I am able to do and have learned not to take anything for granted.  Before Nick, I believed I deserved starting positions in sports, or recognition and respect from my peers regardless of my actions. I put myself in his shoes and can see the adversity Nick faces each day from trying to be understood to struggling to get down the hallway crowded with students.  I now realize no one deserves anything without hard work. Although I believe I work hard athletically and academically, it does not compare to the Nick’s challenge to speak or get in and out of the pool.  Now, I work hard at being a compassionate and caring person.

Because of Nick, I am thoughtful of what I say and do.  I have become much more aware of those around me.  Nick shows me there is more to my life than academics and athletics.  With Nick and Peer Partners, hard work, compassion and caring helps me help others.”

Ryan and Nick 🙂

Peer Partners

Reading this essay warmed my heart.  As his mom, it is wonderful to know that Nick has made a difference in Ryan’s life and no doubt many others.  Ryan just finished his sophomore year at The University of Illinois.  I would like to thank him for sharing his story of working with Nick.

That’s what is in my noggin this week. 🙂





Posted in Autism, Down syndrome, Recreation/Leisure and Special Needs

Blog #53~Scuba Diving, Really?

Blog #53~Scuba Diving, Really?

About a month ago I clicked the inbox to purge emails.  I spotted one from Nick’s Adapted Physical Education (APE) teacher. Subject:  Scuba diving…What the? I laughed picturing Nick strapped down with all that equipment on his back and around his face.  I can’t even get him to leave a hat on for more than thirty seconds.  I started to hit delete but something made me pause.  I skimmed the information and hit reply.  “I am not sure this is something that Nick could tolerate.  What do you think?”

His APE teacher, Meredith Jordan wrote back.  “I think we should give it a try! He really enjoys swimming and has no problem putting his head under water. He has also done an awesome job responding to directions given to him during class. It can’t hurt to try!”

Good point, what did we have to lose?  After all, he does love to swim….See Blog #17~Life’s a Beach @ for more about Nick’s swimming experiences.

APE swimming 006 (4)

I read through the information, watched an ABC news piece and checked out the website (

Scuba diving is the only activity in the world that has zero gravity. And the enjoyment of that zero gravity gives people with various physical disabilities a special freedom.  Jim Elliot started the organization called Diveheart and has been working with divers with disabilities since 1997.  Elliot states that, “There’s a very, very short learning curve in scuba diving with for people with disabilities and without disabilities.”  “Diveheart is a nonprofit whose mission is to build confidence and independence in children, adults and veterans with disabilities through the activity of scuba diving,” said Elliot. “We serve all disabilities. Kids with autism and Down syndrome, the vets coming back with traumatic brain injuries, amputations it doesn’t matter. The only thing that keeps you from diving is pressure related illnesses, open wounds and people with seizures can’t go deep.”

diveheart logo

Fast forward to last week….  I opened up my laptop and found this in my inbox from Mrs. Jordan.  I was stunned!

Diveheart 2013 336 (2)

Here’s what Mrs. Jordan wrote about Nick’s scuba experience…..”It’s pretty cool; I was getting emotional watching him. He did such an awesome job and I was so impressed with how relaxed he was during the entire process. He followed their instructions without any hesitation. I would definitely recommend trying this again possibly with the same organization. The Diveheart instructors used verbal instructions for Nick. They did show him how to open his mouth wide to get the breathing piece all the way in. They thoroughly explained to him everything they were doing. They did not use visual pictures at all. I had a peer partner in the water with him assisting the instructor. The instructor did have to hold the breathing piece in his mouth for a while until Nick realized he had to hold it. Once he got the hang of it he did not want to come up! He was SO relaxed the entire time. They had pretend fish/water toys in the water and Nick LOVED diving for them! Needless to say, he did not want to get out of the water. He was in for about an hour!”

Look at my frogman go :)….

Diveheart 2013 335

Diving for toys…..

Diveheart 2013 330

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to set limits on Nick.  Mrs. Jordan was right, it can’t hurt to try. Thank you Mrs. Jordan and Diveheart! 🙂 I am very grateful for Nick to be given this opportunity.  I would never have thought to try something like this.  Lesson learned, sometimes you have to *Think outside the box.

thinking outside the box

That’s what is in my noggin this week.  🙂


*Thinking Outside the Box according to The Phrase Finder means to think creatively, unimpeded by orthodox or conventional constraints.  It originated in the USA in the late 1960s/early 1970s. It has become something of a cliché, especially in the business world, where ‘thinking outside the box’ has become so hackneyed as to be rather meaningless. The ‘box’, with its implication of rigidity and squareness, symbolizes constrained and unimaginative thinking.