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EIU 360

Defining Her Direction

Special education student found her true calling in high school.

After helping a student with disabilities in an agricultural science class, Kaitlyn Lacy began to think the field of education was the place for her.

Yet, it was through the urging of a beloved teacher that her direction became clear.

Kim Lietz ’83, an EIU alumna and family and consumer sciences teacher, recognized Kaitlyn’s natural talent for teaching and guiding young minds and her patience for working with students with all types of abilities.

She urged Kaitlyn to work toward a degree in education at “her” school — Eastern Illinois University. Kim, a strong advocate for her alma mater, knows EIU is exceptional at preparing teachers, especially those who aspire to special education, like Kaitlyn. And, Kim was not alone in her urging.

Nine other EIU teaching alumni from Kim’s hometown, Pinckneyville, Ill. – a town of roughly 5,000 residents – guided Kaitlyn in making her EIU decision.

These EIU advocates connected Kaitlyn to Kathlene Shank, the department chair of special education, who then recommended that Kaitlyn apply for the Illinois Special Education Tuition Waiver. The waiver provides students with free tuition as long as they agree to teach in the state.

This combination of alumni guidance, affordability and opportunity for a superior education led Kaitlyn to her decision to attend EIU – a decision that ignited three years of volunteer service that would change her life.

Kathlene described Kaitlyn, now a senior special education major, as the calm, steady student who gives all to everything.

“It is never about her,” she said. “It is always about someone else.”

Kathlene also described Kaitlyn’s determination to give back as contagious.

“Not only does she do it, she shows how much she loves doing it,” Kathlene said. Kaitlyn shares her passion for volunteering and does it while maintaining a 4.0 GPA in the classroom, Kathlene said.

Kaitlyn’s love for volunteering is shown in her involvement and leadership. As president of the registered student organization, Student Council for Exceptional Children, she helps provide her classmates with opportunities to interact with individuals with exceptionalities.

The purpose of the organization is to promote these interactions and provide support to the national chapter, focused on enhancing the lives of individuals with disabilities.

Every Monday, she and her fellow students volunteer at the Charleston bowling alley with individuals from Camp New Hope, a camp that serves those with developmental and physical disabilities from age 8 and above in Mattoon, Ill.

Kaitlyn, who is also a counselor for Camp New Hope, helps tally points, picks out shoes and bowls with the campers.

Her group is also involved with Special Olympics teams at Charleston Middle School and Charleston High School. They bought new uniforms and walked with the students in EIU’s Homecoming parade.

From juggling obligations with Camp New Hope and Special Olympics, Kaitlyn also hosts game nights with the CTF Illinois group home, a non-profit organization that provides services to individuals with disabilities in Illinois.

Yet, Kaitlyn’s volunteer activities don’t stop at the Student Council for Exceptional Children.

She is a member of Sigma Rho Epsilon, the honors special education fraternity, and Best Buddies, the organization that connects students with individuals with disabilities.

Not surprisingly, one of her favorite activities is her meetings with the Sigma Rho Epsilon’s honorary member, Steve.

For nearly 20 years, Steve has been an honorary member through National Ties, a national organization that helps connect individuals with disabilities in the community.

Kaitlyn and the others from Sigma Rho Epsilon will take Steve to his favorite place for a fish sandwich (McDonald's) or spend time just hanging out and listening to Elton John with him.

These volunteer activities provide Kaitlyn with skills and experience only available outside the classroom. As she nears her last semester before graduation, Kaitlyn reminisced about how her decision to attend Eastern is defining her career and giving her direction beyond the doors of the classroom.

“I came in and I didn’t have much experience with people with disabilities,” Kaitlyn said. “All these experiences between the practicum and outside experience, I am now totally comfortable because I feel like I have seen almost everything.”

Classroom learning provided Kaitlyn with only one snapshot of the skills she will need as a teacher. Leisure activities such as bowling and playing games, helped her to understand her students on a personal level, she said.

Kaitlyn understands helping others educate will not be her only job in her future classroom.

“Learning is only half of it,” she said. “The other half is creating the most normal life as possible for all your students.”

Looking back, Kaitlyn can pinpoint when she knew she had made the right decision to enter the teaching profession.

In a practicum class, she worked with students in the Treatment and Learning Center in Humboldt, Ill., a facility that serves students with behavioral and emotional disorders.

After an 11th grade student finished his ACT workbook, he gave the test to the teacher in the classroom to grade.

Kaitlyn can’t remember what happened next without crying. The teacher looked up at the student with tears in his eyes and told the student he scored a 31 on the math section.

The student asked if he could be an engineer one day. Kaitlyn remembers the teacher responding, “We could totally help you do that.”

Kaitlyn explained that many times students with disabilities do not truly believe they can accomplish anything.

“Even though he has a disability or exceptionality, he can still do something with his life,” she said. “It knocks that stereotype.”

In that moment, seeing the emotion on their faces, Kaitlyn knew she was in the right place.

One of Kaitlyn’s professors, Christy Hooser, is fond of saying, “If you weren’t supposed to be here, you wouldn’t be.”

And, it looks like Kaitlyn is exactly where she belongs.

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