Chris Ulmer, a special education teacher from Jacksonville, Florida who started the successful Social Media project Special Books for Special Kids visited the Linda Nolen Learning Center on March 21 to interview three students for his next videos.
Ulmer, who has been teaching special needs students for three years, started the Special Books for Special Kids project as a way to help others understand special needs children.
“I have had the same students for three years,” Ulmer explained. “It took me a while to understand their intelligence and how they communicate. My goal was to create a book series to help eliminate the learning curve of understanding these children. I wanted to eliminate that learning curve so that people can understand them right away.”
Ulmer was rejected by 50 to 60 book publishers before he decided to turn his focus to using video and Social Media, specifically Facebook and his website, as a new platform for sharing these students’ stories.
He started by featuring his own eight students. He then began to travel to other states during his vacations and schools breaks to highlight additional students with various special needs diagnoses. He visited 10 different states during his winter break, and will visit four more states, including Alabama during his spring break.
Ulmer’s videos went viral after being highlighted by a small media company called The Mighty, which also features stories about special needs students, and then ABC World News. He currently has over 323,000 Facebook followers on his page and his videos average 100,000 views a day. His highest viewed video was seen by more than 50 million.
Ulmer was contacted by the Linda Nolen Learning Center’s PTO President Jessica Lawson, whose 13-year-old daughter Emily was one of the students interviewed for the Special Books by Special Kids project. The other students were 13-year old Jeffrey Gaiters and 15-year-old Noah Earley. All three students were interviewed, along with their parents, to discuss their various special needs diagnoses.
Lawson said she was contacted by several friends who had seen Ulmer’s Facebook site.
“I had several friends who had tagged me in his posts looking for students to interview and cities to visit,” Lawson said. “I thought our students at the Linda Nolen Learning Center would be a good fit for what he is doing.”
Principal Michele Shepherd said students were who were selected have great personalities and she knew they would do well with this project.
“The kids are very excited,” she said. “I know all of their special personalities.”
Gaiters, who struggles with behavioral issues due Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), was extremely well-spoken as he recounted how far he has come since he first started attending the LNLC when he was six-years-old. He gave credit to his school and his very supportive parents for always encouraging him. His father has instilled in him a love for dirt bikes and he has a goal to become a master mechanic one day.
“I am glad I have a mom who never gave up on me,” Gaiters said. “She just kept giving me encouragement and now I am on the A/B Honor Roll.”
Earley, who has Down’s Syndrome and is also a Leukemia survivor, was very verbal with Ulmer as he communicated his favorite things – such as his dogs, Ozzie and Stella, the Disney Channel, and hotdogs and cheese sticks from the school lunchroom. Earley also shared how much he loves his teachers and family.
“He is the center of our lives,” said Earley’s father, Morgan. “He has been through a lot. He spent 32 days in the hospital last year and we thought we were going to lose him.”
“I know he will probably be with us always,” Mr. Earley continued in describing his son’s ability to one day live independently. “But that is a blessing too. He just makes the world a better place. It is exhausting and challenging to have a special needs child, but it is also so very rewarding.”
Emily Lawson, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, said she enjoys Physical Education class, being outside, spending time with her friends and family. She said one day she wants to be a teacher herself.
Her mom, Jessica, shared that Emily has a very hard time with self-control and struggles with sensory issues which make it hard for her to be in public places such as the grocery store.
“We encourage her to talk to others when we go to a public place,” Ms. Lawson said. “Background noise is very distracting to her and that makes it very difficult to take her to the grocery store.”
Ms. Lawson recalled one particularly trying time when she brought Emily home from the grocery store in frustration.
“But I got home and decided to go back and finish because I wasn’t going to let her autism define her and I wasn’t going to let it define me,” Ms. Lawson said. “She wants to be loved and accepted. She is just like everyone else.”
To learn more about Ulmer’s project visit: https://www.facebook.com/specialbooksbyspecialkids/ or http://www.specialbooksbyspecialkids.com/.