Watch sarah's Video
  • Senior Special Education major Special Education Website
  • President, UNC’s Student Council for Exceptional Children
  • Helps coordinate the monthly “Parent Respite Night” at Greeley’s Rodarte Center
  • Co-presented research on Parent Respite with UNC student Emily Emerson at the Council for Exceptional Children’s annual international conference, held in San Antonio in spring 2013.

Where Learning Goes Both Ways

It’s early February, and UNC special education student Sarah Gross arrives at Greeley’s Rodarte Community Center dressed for success: She wears a pink t-shirt, and her long hair is pulled up high with a bright splash of pink cascading through it. It’s King-and-Queen-of-Hearts night at UNC’s Parent Respite, a monthly, three-hour event where kids who are at-risk or have a disability can have fun while their parents and caregivers take time off. Around 50 children attend the event, along with about 50 UNC student volunteers.

“The kids get to hang out with cool college students and it’s a great chance for parents to re-energize, run errands and do things they can’t normally do,” Sarah says.

It’s also an opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience and apply classroom lessons to real-life situations.

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“Working with Respite is very hands on, so all the strategies we learned in class are applied on a more personal level with the kids. Behavior management comes in,” says Sarah. “And I’m definitely going to have a better understanding of the parents’ point of view and the child’s point of view. We engage with children, and the community.”

Parent Respite is a cooperative effort between UNC students and faculty, City of Greeley officials, parents and people within the community who work with at-risk youth. Last spring, the Council for Exceptional Children invited Sarah and fellow UNC student Emily Emerson to present research on Respite night at the organization’s annual professional conference, held in San Antonio. (Check out Emily’s video presentation)

“We presented on what we learned, how to collaborate with the city, with parents, and with children outside the classroom,” Sarah says. “As undergrads, we don’t always get that opportunity to present, let alone do research. This was my first chance to do research and our faculty sponsor, Francie Murry, was very supportive.”

Murry, professor of special education at UNC, says that Parent Respite deepens the understanding students have in a way that goes beyond classroom learning.

“Parent Respite gives students in special education an opportunity to see kids with disabilities in a light where they’re relaxed, the pressure for academics isn’t there,” Murry says.

“I think it’s a great outlet for kids to see potential teachers and future teachers outside of their classroom role,” Sarah agrees.

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Respite and UNC’s Special Education program also fosters a close connection between UNC students and their professors.

It was part of what drew Sarah to attend UNC. She grew up in a family of six children, and her experience with her two brothers’ disabilities sparked her interest in special education.

“I’d heard so much about UNC’s program, and it’s very close knit. The faculty connection with students is phenomenal. We have professors who have had enormous experience in their field. They really make an effort to connect with us.”

Sarah plans to attend graduate school, then hopes to work with students with significant needs, applying the lessons she’s learned in and out of the classroom.

“The biggest thing I have learned from the kids at Parent Respite is that you have to be willing to roll with the punches and keep incredibly flexible and calm,” she says, adding that, over the course of the school year, she’s seen changes in the children that attend Respite.

“They’ve opened up more, they’re more engaged with adults and people who aren’t their teachers or parents. It’s a great way to see them bloom and come into their own person.”

"Working with Respite is very hands on, so all the strategies we learned in class are applied on a more personal level with the children."

  • Click to Enlarge Photos

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