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One giant step for disabled children

Special-ed teacher tells what it took to go to Space Camp in the 1980s

By Sara SteindorfStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 16, 2002

Michael Kersjes was casting about for a new challenge. A teacher of special-education students in the late 1980s, he was feeling stale in his job and wondering what he could do to raise his charges' low status at school.

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So when he stumbled across a magazine article about Space Camp – he decided it was time for a field trip.

Never mind that these students were rarely allowed in regular classrooms at that time. The room occupied by his 20 students at Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., was "just a dumping ground for kids with Down syndrome, Tourette's syndrome, dyslexia, and emotional problems," Mr. Kersjes says in a recent phone interview. "The school didn't really care about these kids; they just wanted them out of the way. We had a room with no windows at the far end of the school. Out of sight, out of mind."

Space Camp, meanwhile, was an educational experience hundreds of miles away at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. Not only that – it was reserved for the gifted.

"People just didn't see it, special-needs kids going to Space Camp. I got opposition from everyone, from other teachers and my principal to the Space Camp administrators," Kersjes says.

Now, some 13 years later, he's published a book about the experience.

The book jacket is bound to invite some skepticism, bearing the words "a truly triumphant story of the power of the human spirit." But despite the somewhat sappy cover, "A Smile as Big as the Moon" (St. Martin's Press) offers an inspiring David-and-Goliath tale.

The story of how he and his ragtag crew of special-needs students overcame some stiff opposition to attend Space Camp starts with a simple transformation.

"I began to see myself as the last stop for these kids between going to an institution and being kicked out of school. I knew they needed a better shot," he says.

Little did he know at that point that a year later, such change of thought would lead him to start his own space camp for special-needs children. Or that by 2002, he would have raised enough money to have sent more than 2,000 students through his program – for free.

But back to the story.

Kersjes's heartfelt sentiment often mixes with his more bull-headed and intimidating side, chiseled from his years as a football coach and as a football player in college.

"For the students, failing was never an option. I knew we had to do something extraordinary in order to get people to realize the potential of special-needs kids," he says. "But if we failed, I also knew it would reflect badly on everyone else in special education."

So began the year-long push to get the kids accepted to Space Camp. Not only did he need to raise $50,000, but he had to get past a school administration that didn't want the district to be represented by a special-ed bunch, and convince dubious parents that his quixotic plan would work.