"Lengthen your stride" is the motto of the Frenchtown High School Special Education Department, and it is something they encourage students to do every day. Shelley Johnson, the daughter of Kelly and Duane Johnson, takes the motto seriously. Shelley is a junior and is serving her second year as the Assistant Manager, water girl, chief cheerleader and number one fan for the Frenchtown Broncs freshman boys' basketball team. She also cheers for the football team. According to Kelly and Duane, Shelley has always loved sports. Years ago, Kelly started making regular requests to the school to allow Shelley a role with one of the teams. During her sophomore year, Shelley's teacher, Phil McLendon (who also happened to be the basketball coach) thought, "Why not?" With the support of the Frenchtown High School administration, Coach Phil pitched a proposal to Shelley's grateful parents, and Shelley became an Assistant Manager.
Shelley thrives in her role on the team. She proudly wears a Broncs uniform and stands on the sideline, cheering, waving her pom-poms and yelling advice and encouragement until it's time to deliver water to the parched players. She knows all the student athletes; they treat her as one of their own. Duane says, "Shelley melts your heart with her compassion" and Coach Phil agrees. "Shelley is the first person to offer help if a player gets hurt." In fact, Coach Phil thinks so highly of Shelley that he contacted a local newspaper to share her story. The January 23, 2011 Missoulian article spotlights the contributions Shelley and another Frenchtown student make in the locker room and on the court.
Coach Phil describes Shelley as a "little sister to everyone." For her 16th birthday, her mom ordered ten pizzas and a cake and had them delivered to school...the entire football team came up and gave Shelley "high-fives." When the National Guard offered a pull-up contest during the lunch hour, Coach Phil asked if Shelley wanted to compete and she enthusiastically said, "Yes!" He and another teacher helped her while the other students cheered. (Frenchtown High School prides itself on fostering inclusion and equality. All students are recognized as having strengths and abilities - as being unique individuals who are part of a community.) Coach Phil credits Shelley with teaching him "so much about life."
Shelley isn't afraid of hard work. At home on the ranch she works side by side with her dad, putting up hay, pitching feed to the cows, shoveling snow, and spotting deer and elk on hunting trips. Ever the cheerleader, Shelley congratulates and praises her dad after successful hunting excursions.
At school, she helps in the kitchen. Shelley is also completing an unpaid work experience at a local convenience store three days per week for an hour each day. She wears a uniform, punches a time clock, makes pizzas and sub sandwiches, stocks, and cleans. A paraeducator accompanies Shelley, but sits on the other side of the store and lets her work independently. Shelley hopes to be hired in a paid position for the summer. Her teacher and parents say the work experience is not only beneficial for Shelley, it shows the people in her community that she is competent and capable of working.
Shelley is an active volunteer, feeding cats and kittens at AniMeals and organizing merchandise at the YWCA's Secret Seconds store. (A support person assists her as needed.) During the summer, Kelly prints out a calendar for each month and together she and Shelley fill the calendars with volunteering, the Child Development Center summer program, and recreational activities. Shelley's mom leans toward overbooking her...she doesn't want Shelley sitting at home.
Even with her busy schedule, Shelley finds time for fun. She loves animals, especially horses, and rides without assistance. (She took therapeutic riding lessons when she was young...now she's learning to trot and gallop.) She also knows how to care for the horses, like brushing them down. Shelley is a fan of all sports and enjoys swimming and performing on her trampoline. During less active moments, she likes to watch movies, especially the "Man from Snowy River" films.
To support her transition planning and preparation, Shelley receives Children's Waiver Services through the Child Development Center. Her Family Support Specialist meets with her weekly, and her Direct Support Professional takes her into the community to work on health, safety and other goals. Shelley's mom tries to find relevant and enjoyable ways to teach Shelley new skills. For example, if Shelley is learning traffic safety, they will park a few streets away from the Missoula Carousel so Shelley needs to pay attention to stoplights and cross busy streets to get where she wants to go. She is practicing laundry and cooking at home, and is starting to use an iPad to assist with communication.
Shelley's parents describe her as an "amazing child, strong, bright, confident, and independent." They say she follows directions and learns routines well, and she takes pride in what she does. Shelley is very responsible at home, picking up after herself and helping with household chores.
The vision for Shelley's life after high school includes her having a paid job in the community that she's excited about doing, volunteering, staying involved in a variety of recreational activities, taking responsibility for herself, and being as independent as she can be in all aspects of her life. She will have the necessary supports in place so she can be successful. And she will continue to split her time between her mom's home and her dad's ranch - Shelley has Type I diabetes and although she can monitor her blood sugar levels herself, she needs help with the insulin delivery through her pump.
Coach Phil, Kelly and Duane have sage advice and suggestions for others who are accompanying young people with disabilities on their journey to adulthood. Coach Phil stresses the importance of high expectations and a strong advocate in the young person's life. Kelly says, "Keep raising the bar. Don't give kids crutches and baby them along." She cautions people working with Shelley: "Don't let her fool you. She's so capable. Keep raising expectations. She will meet them." Shelley's mom attended a National Downs Syndrome conference when Shelley was eight and after that experience, made a ten-year plan. She keeps the plan in her day timer and brings copies for all team members to every IEP meeting...the plan helps keep the team focused.
Shelley's dad advises parents not to set any boundaries beyond safety issues. "Let them try things and be independent. Try not to treat them differently than any other kid. Promote inclusion." He believes that by ensuring Shelley has been actively involved in her community, it has helped the community accept and encourage her, which in turn builds her self-confidence. Finally, Duane tells parents to "teach responsibility - kids need to learn they have to do certain things, even if they don't want to. Let them be kids. Let them flourish and prosper. Don't set too many boundaries. Honor their likes and dislikes. Encourage their involvement in age-appropriate activities. Be proud of your kids."