Georgia’s pre-K programs are celebrating Inclusive Early Learning Week and Whitfield County has a new face of inclusion to present to students and parents around the world.

Westside Elementary School pre-K teacher Kristen Warren is one of three inclusive pre-K teachers in Whitfield County Schools and is also the aunt of Lucas Warren, the Dawnville toddler recently named as the "2018 Gerber Spokesbaby." Lucas is the first special-needs face of Gerber since the company began selecting yearly representatives for the company in 2010. Lucas was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth.

On Wednesday at Westside Elementary at the “Wednesday Friends Day” event for Inclusive Early Learning Week, Lucas and his parents Cortney and Jason Warren were Kristen Warren’s guests for the celebration. Kristen Warren is the sister-in-law of Jason Warren.

As an inclusion teacher, Gerber's selection of Lucas was a special event for her, and being an aunt to Lucas makes it even more special.

“I am super excited,” Kristen Warren said. “Inclusion is definitely my heart. I was not prepared for it when I stepped into this job and it was new to me, but I have grown to just absolutely love it. Obviously, being an aunt is going to be the best thing in the world. Being able to be part of his learning and growing too and watching him accomplish goals and just help change the world, that is what I am excited about.”

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'Everyone has a story': Gerber baby a face of inclusion

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News

Lucas Warren, 1, visits a classroom at Westside Elementary School on Wednesday.

The week is presented by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) Bright from the Start Program.

Jae Boyd, one of DACAL’s pre-K consultants for northwest Georgia, read to Warren’s class and did a video interview with Cortney and Kristen Warren along with Selena Weed, the Whitfield County pre-K project director. Weed said Whitfield County Schools has 14 pre-K classrooms and three of them are inclusive classrooms with students with special needs.

“It is important because there is a need in our community,” Weed said. “There is a need for us to provide an environment where students with and without disabilities can have opportunities to grow and flourish.”

Boyd said the inclusion program is one of the state’s proudest for early learners, and highlighting their existence to parents who may not know of them and informing them of their educational options in public schools is the point of the week.

“This week is so important just to raise awareness for inclusion and the importance of children to be accepted and included in the classroom,” Boyd said. “We hope that through this week we can really shine a light and raise awareness to all the wonderful inclusion classrooms we offer around the state.”

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'Everyone has a story': Gerber baby a face of inclusion

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News

Kristen Warren holds her nephew Lucas Warren as she talks to her students in pre-K at Westside Elementary School on Wednesday.

The addition of Lucas — a face which was introduced nationwide last week on national television and social media — was just a fortuitous coincidence, Boyd said.

“The timing of Lucas becoming the first Gerber baby with Down syndrome, the timing couldn’t have been better,” she said. “His parents have been so wonderful to come and interview with us and help raise the awareness of inclusion and the importance of it. We hope everybody in the state of Georgia and elsewhere can see that and just be proud of our state and what we are doing for inclusion.

Kristen Warren said her students don’t see any of their classmates as “special needs.”

“It is amazing to see the growth from both sides,” Kristen Warren said. “You have our inclusion students — every student is learning at different goals — but our inclusion students have specific goals they are working on. But they are teaching my class as a whole how to work together and just acceptance. Being able to see through the eyes of a 4-year-old, they see no differences.”

Cortney Warren said the last week has been hectic with activity, but said the outpouring of the community and from people across the world has been life-changing. She said hearing and sharing other people’s stories has shown her that “everyone has a story or has been touched by a special needs child.”

“We are so excited to be able to shine light on the special needs community and show they can do anything they set their mind to,” she said. “The fear eases. The worry eases. The child itself puts you at ease and lets them put you at ease. Lucas’ happiness is what has gotten me through his diagnosis. His joy, he is constantly making me laugh and making me feel like I am doing a good job.”

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