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Jaycie Voorhees – Jordan Valley School

Teaching is a very demanding, but rewarding job! It takes more than mere knowledge to inspire and lead students. I have taught school for 50 years and I recognize good teaching when I see it. I have observed the dedication and hard work of Jaycie Voorhees of the Jordan Valley School… Jordan Valley is a special needs school, with an incredible staff. Jaycie is a dedicated, board certified music specialist. This very talented woman has chosen to center her life around the education of special needs children. This is only her 5th year of teaching, but she shows the insight of one who has had many years in the classroom.

Part of the reward of a teacher is seeing her students reach their goals, like learning the location of all the European countries and their capitals or memorizing all of the times tables, but the goals of the students at JVE are very different. One child had a goal of being able to stand unsupported for 1 full minute and Russel, my grandson had a goal of answering a simple “yes” or “no” to questions. These goals seem so easy, but they are hard for these special children to achieve. The teachers at the school have a great deal to do, and dedication is obvious, but Mrs. Voorhees decided to make it a bit more complicated, and do a school musical. Her first show featured 120 children. Many of them bound to wheelchairs, and others unable to speak, but that did not distract her from her own goal. She wanted to reach them through music.

The first year it was the “Wizard of Oz” and my little Russel, 17, whose mental age is about 5, did his very best as the dancing, singing scarecrow. The joy on his face made my eyes wet with tears, and for the first time in my life I cried through the “Wizard of Oz”. The next year, the play was “Peter Pan”. “Wendy” a young lady who is confined to a wheel chair, and unable to speak, but she sat in her chair and excitedly pushed the buttons necessary to make the words come out of a special adaptive device. At one point in the show, she spotted her mother in the audience and waived with great enthusiasm. Under normal circumstances this is taboo, but not in this show. The audience loved her!

Therese, who played Peter Pan, is also non-verbal, but such a wonderful Peter Pan. She acted out her part, with the help of a teacher aid constantly at her side. At the end when the “leads” were given flowers, she motioned that she wanted the microphone and for a breathtaking 20 to 30 seconds this non-verbal child gave an “acceptance speech”. No one could understand what she was saying, but the audience was moved to tears by her fluent attempt to speak the elusive words. What kind of super teacher can get that kind of result? It is truly amazing to see a “non-speaking child” give an acceptance speech. It must have been the highlight of her young life.

This year Mrs. Voorhees is doing “Beauty and the Beast.” To watch the children is inspiring, but to watch the teachers helping them move their arms, dance clumsily or speak a few simple lines is breathtaking and something I think after all my 50 years’ experience, I could not do what so aptly do.

Russel loves to go to school and talks, in his limited way, of his teachers. He can’t even tell us when he does not feel well, but last night I said “I wish I knew what part Russel had this year” and Russel himself answered “Gaston”. He was very excited and beamed broadly. These words came from a very shy, young man with very limited speaking ability. He understands that he is a “star” and it is obvious that he loves to practice.

Even getting these children into their costumes is an adventure, but Mrs. Voorhees and the staff have costumes, sets, scenery and props, music and “dance”. It is hard to believe all of the work that goes into a production involving about 120 children, especially when all of those 120 have special needs and problems. When they did “Oz” last year, your news staff came and took some pictures. Russel saw himself on TV, and Grandma cried again as he beamed broadly. It was obvious he was having a good time, and some of these children do not have a lot of good times.

As a music therapist, Mrs. Voorhees’ job is focused on using music to help the students reach their goals. Music is a powerful tool and motivator and has great power over the students. For example, at the school there is autistic, easily upset young man. He seems oblivious of people around him. He must work one on one. He wanders a lot and is unable to focus. He has a mark on his forehead which he has made because he constantly punches his head with his knee in frustration. It was very hard to calm this boy down, but Mrs. Voorhees sat him down at the piano. She played one part and with much persuasion, he finally added a few notes with one finger. John changed as he continued to plunk the keys. He was calm and focused. The constant rocking was nearly stopped, and although he faced the wall most of the time, he continued to play and his joy was obvious. Music and Mrs. Voorhees are changing his young life and at least for that period of time there was happiness, and calm within that less than perfect body. For this non-verbal high school age student, music and Mrs. Voorhees are a great blessing. A transformation of sorts takes place at the piano, and the violent movements come under control.

Mrs. Voorhees often plays the piano or the guitar to help her students. One adolescent Downs Syndrome girl was unable to walk unsupported, but Mrs. Voorhees stood in front of the child and walked backwards playing and singing, motioning the girl toward her. A child like this wants to walk, but is afraid of falling. That day she began to move unassisted, distracted by and involved in the music. She wanted to get closer to the sound, and it happened as she took step after step unsupported. The teachers standing nearby experienced one of those rare teaching moments. Music released the child from her confinement, and although those steps were slow and faltering, they were steps! For a time she was out of the prison of her body. Today that child can walk into a room and pick up a toy. Mrs. Voorhees, through music therapy, worked a miracle.

Sally is blind, autistic, and has Downs Syndrome, to name only a few of her complications. She emerges into another world when she works with Mrs. Voorhees. Her laughter can be heard down the hall, and her temperament becomes calm and happy. The many hours of music therapy have a slow, but discernible effect.

Max has a traumatic brain injury, cannot move his feet on his own, so Mrs. Voorhees gave him a “body metronome” which is a small device attached to the body. It vibrates to a beat and when Max is wearing it, he moves his feet to the beat! Oh, it isn’t a sure-footed striding, but he moves when normally movement is impossible.

In another case a child needed to learn her new address. In the past it had taken 2 years of struggle to learn that address! Now she had to start over. Mrs. Voorhees put the address to music. The girl practiced for 11 long weeks, but now, thanks to a dedicated teacher, she can SING her address. A skill which has the potential to save her life.

I asked Mrs. Voorhees if she does not become discouraged when it takes so long to make so little progress. She replied, “Those small things become very exciting and the tiny moments of success make a big difference in my life and in the lives of the students.”

I know a lot of superior teacher, but I can’t think of a more wonderful teacher to be selected as KSL Teacher of the week.

“No man is an island. No man stands alone.
Each man’s joy is joy to me.
Each man’s grief is my own.”

Mrs. Voorhees is a walking testimonial of this statement. She is a blessing to her students and a credit to the profession of teaching.

Most sincerely,
Vanessa Nelson

Post note: The children in the text are certainly real, but I have changed the names of several of them, to avoid any possible embarrassment.