By Sarah Ward, Staff Writer at Elk Rapids News
Chris Vandenberg, a senior at Elk Rapids High School, has a big message to share: chocolate chip cookies are a lot like us. We are a mixture of ingredients (feelings), with the chocolate chips considered the best part. During a classroom presentation, Chris had to come up with a topic and present it to his peers. For some people, talking in front of a group might not be such a big deal, for others it can be a paralyzing feat, especially if talking in front of people has been a challenge you have been trying to master your entire life. With his love of cooking, Chris’s choice came naturally (he is a huge Rachel Ray and Paula Deen fan, as he chooses two recipes per week from his magazine subscriptions and prepares the meals for his family). He even gets to hone his kitchen skills while working at Siren Hall during a work-study program. With the help of his dedicated teachers, Chris chose the idea of discussing “cookies.” Life Skills Class instructor Deanna Sayer was prepared for Chris to come in with all of the ingredients and tools to demonstrate how to bake cookies. He had a bigger plan.
Chris showed up to class, not with all of the expected material one would use to make cookies from scratch. Not that he couldn’t – it just wasn’t the point he was trying to make. He walked in with a couple of packages of store-bought cookies and a box of toothpicks, passing one cookie to each of his classmates, along with a toothpick. The instructions were simple: try to remove the chocolate chips from your cookie without allowing the cookie to crumble. It seems like a simple task, right? As the students followed the directions for several minutes, Chris waited silently. Then he said, “I am using this exercise to explain that when you’re mean to someone or bully them you are hurting their feelings and making them feel bad about themselves. You’re picking away all of the good parts and leaving behind crumbs.” Have you ever heard of the phrase “Aha moment?” If you have not until now, you just experienced one while reading this. Chris went on to ask his peers to “please think about this before you say something mean to somebody or if you see somebody else getting picked on.” The message is simple, but the impact is profound.
In October, Chris was nominated student of the month at Elk Rapids High School, and his classroom presentation, which was reenacted for the school board, staff and those in attendance, received an emotional response. In his own unique way, Chris has taught one of life’s biggest lessons: treat others the way you would like to be treated.
Things have not come easy for Chris. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (a syndrome on the Autism Spectrum) at a young age. Upon moving to Elk Rapids, the Vandenberg family was welcomed with open arms and the district’s willingness to do whatever it took to make Chris’s transition into Lakeland Elementary as smooth as possible was exemplary. Connie Gallegos, Teacher Consultant, at TBAISD, fi rst met Chris when he moved to Elk Rapids. “Chris didn’t talk much at fi rst. He was able to talk; it was just diffi cult for him to process what was said and then to give a response.
Many thought he didn’t know what to say, but once Chris got to know you, it was soon evident that Chris had a lot to say.” Connie goes on to say that “Today, Chris is a young man with hopes, dreams and desires for the future like any other 18-year-old. Hearing a belly laugh from Chris is truly infectious and leaves you smiling for the rest of the day. Knowing Chris has enriched my life more than I could ever express.”
Through the years, Elk Rapids’ teaching and administrative staff, along with the help of special peer helpers, have mixed all of Chris’s wonderful ingredients and helped him to grow and become a young man that cares deeply about feelings and who loves chocolate chip cookies, too. His friend and peer helper, Katy Derks, said it best, “Being friends with Chris has been a highlight in my life; he has taught me so much and I really do believe that I have given as much to Chris as Chris has given back to me. I’m so glad that he has been my friend from 3rd grade to now, our senior year!
Check out Chris' video http://video214.com/play/gjv1AewVe1Tx10B2vxK1HA/s/dark
Did you know...
Autism affects 1 in 110 children and 1 in 70 boys. The incidence of Asperger Syndrome (AS) is not well established, but experts in population studies conservatively estimate that 2 out of every 10,000 children have the disorder. Boys are three to four times more likely than girls to have AS. It is important to recognize the early symptoms of AS, which will lead to early detection and intervention. Some “red fl ags” to look for include the following:
Article by Sara Ward Who Stole the Feelings from the Jar?
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