From Special Needs Sibling to FCSN Volunteer

By Katherine He, FCSN Youth Volunteer (Teacher & Coordinator) 

Hello! My name is Katherine He. I’ve been volunteering at FCSN for 3 years and my family has been a member of the FCSN community for 19 years. Here, I share part of my journey volunteering at FCSN. 

In 2002, my family joined FCSN in search of a community where my special needs brother would be welcomed, supported, and celebrated. Nearly two decades later, I watch as he rushes out of the car when our parents drop us off at the FCSN building (prior to shelter-in-place) for Special Shine classes. I listen as he announces to us every Saturday evening that he has a Zoom art class with an SNTutoring volunteer. After years of classes, my brother – despite his vision impairments – learned to play dozens of piano songs and developed an interest in cartoon art. The FCSN volunteers that taught him poured their hearts into helping him, innovating with large-font transcriptions of music notes and magnified drawings. All of it was incredibly inspiring to me, and I signed up to volunteer as soon as orientation opened in the summer of 2018. 

“Great job today!” and “See you next week!” rang through the FCSN Building as the Special Shine classes ended around noon. Just a few days later, on March 1st of 2020, we were informed that all in-person classes were indefinitely canceled. Within the first few weeks, I kept in touch with students’ parents and learned about their interest in continuing our Lego Digital Design class virtually. During regular classes, I had access to a large-screen presentation that broke down the step-by-step design process. Moreover, I could provide individual encouragement and re-do demonstrations. But our design projects and learning couldn’t wait indefinitely. So, I sent out my first Zoom class link, wrote a transcript of instructions, and joined meetings early to prepare. To my delight, students would greet each other with smiles, waves, and by name upon entering the Zoom classroom. The virtual atmosphere contained just as much warmth and eagerness as a physical classroom, with students clapping for one another after each completed project (everything from music boxes to flying dinosaurs to Christmas-themed trains!) 

My brother, Kevin, during an FCSN concert

After the semester ended, I created two virtual programs: Find Your Voice and Life Skills: Finance & Current Events. Find Your Voice was a speaking and communication program; Life Skills was a series of interactive activities to learn about finance and current events, culminating in a final project. From the design class, I came to two conclusions: (1) my students enjoyed seeing each other over Zoom and working together, yet (2) some students needed more individual support than group classes could provide. Accordingly, Find Your Voice increased interaction through mini-group classes, while Life Skills offered customization through 1:1 classes. Throughout the entire summer, I found volunteering for both programs to be immensely fulfilling. In Find Your Voice, we watched as students gained the confidence to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. As we soon realized, the key to helping our students speak more was through encouraging them to talk about specific passions, then patiently listening. Multiple students’ parents called and messaged me at the end of the program, excitedly reflecting that their special needs child had never spoken as many words as they did during our classes.   

Over the last three years at FCSN, I have learned more about my special needs students, my brother’s friendship with his volunteers, and my own passions than I ever expected. From a sibling perspective, I witnessed as volunteers nurtured my brother’s confidence and taught him countless creative skills to enrich his life. Now, he enthusiastically plays “Happy Birthday” on the piano for any special occasion and proudly presents his artwork to our entire extended family. From a volunteer perspective, the staff, coordinators, parents, and students have always welcomed our ideas and efforts with open arms. Nineteen years ago, my brother found a community that celebrated special needs individuals; for the past three years, I’ve volunteered in an effort to return even a fraction of what the FCSN community has given us. It has shaped thousands of volunteers – as teachers, as advocates, and as young people trying to make a difference. Thank you, FCSN, for making an impact and believing that we can, too. 

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