One giant step for disabled children

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

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.

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.

Then there were the kids themselves. The ill-behaved, high-strung gang wasn't used to rigorous academics. Kersjes had spent most of his time breaking up fights, or teaching them how to ignore the insults from those who didn't see them as a real people.

But with Space Camp dangling in front of them, the students were much more eager to learn.

Kersjes integrated team-building activities into the curriculum, along with pop quizzes on the acronyms used at Space Camp and lessons on how to command a rocket ship. His goal was that they would simply make it through the mentally and physically gruelling competition; the nondisabled students who attended Space Camp typically didn't spend nearly as much time preparing.

But in the end, his students not only completed the week at camp, but – to their utter surprise – won awards.

"When you have great self-confidence, it goes a long way," Kersjes says. "The best thing that came out of the whole thing is that now they are taxpayers; some of them run businesses and have kids."

After their success, Kersjes started the nonprofit Space Is Special Inc. to help at-risk and special-needs children attend the Space Camp. Since then, Kersjes has traveled to schools in seven states, preparing teachers and students for about 12 consecutive Saturdays before they attend the week-long camp.

Space Camp, meanwhile, has added extensive facilities for blind and hearing-impaired students. Now, all children, regardless of their disabilities, may join.

Kersjes has made his organization a main priority, and gave up teaching about five years ago. A few months ago he also stopped coaching so that he could tour to promote his book. Now that Walt Disney Pictures plans to transform his book into a film, Kersjes hopes that will attract funding and enable more students to attend his program.

"We may have come a long way with mainstreaming special-needs kids since 1989," Kersjes says. "But we've still never really had a Special Olympics for the mind where they can show off their gifts, of educational value, to our society."

He adds that highlighting the success of programs like his is particularly important now, when Congress is debating whether it should increase funding for special-education students.

"The way I see it, if these kids don't get enough aid for special education, these same kids will need a lot more money later on for things like unemployment and Medicaid."

Kersjes says he always knew he wanted to write a book about his experience, so he just kept telling his story. Eventually, St. Martin's Press signed him onto a book deal, and brought in professional writer Joe Layden to collaborate.

Now the story is in the hands of movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose lengthy résumé includes "Armageddon" and "Black Hawk Down." They're still in the beginning stages of developing the film, but Kersjes has already settled on one detail: who should play himself. "Ed Harris would be perfect.... He seems like a real down-to-earth, sincere guy."

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