After reading some stories, playing with blocks and helping pre-K students at Rindge Memorial School with the coloring a rainbow, Kerrigan Bergeron turned her attention to Cheyenne Sisk.
Bergeron helped Cheyenne, a second-grade student with some motor planning issues, with a rope-tying drill that tasked her with tying a large rope around her legs. Then, they wrote a letter to Cheyenne’s pen pal, which included sentences about some of her favorite animals, the badger and the lion.
“I’ve always dreamt of working with little kids with disabilities,” said Bergeron, a senior at Conant High School. “This is one of the reasons why I joined the program. I wanted to go somewhere where I could see what an occupational therapist does.”
A revamped Conant High School program has recently afforded Bergeron the opportunity to put her dreams to the test, offering her job shadowing experience with a local occupational therapist to see if it is a career she would like to pursue post-graduation.
The Extended Learning Opportunity (ELO) program offers high school students in the Jaffrey-Rindge School District a chance to explore career fields outside the classroom, all while having the chance to earn credits toward graduation.
After working in the program for the last six months, Bergeron has reaffirmed that occupational therapy is a career that she would love to pursue. She plans on going to Sacred Heart University in the fall.
From the early days of her youth, Bergeron has had an intimate relationship with disabilities and occupational therapy due to her close relationship with her uncle, Jacob Bergeron, who long suffered from spinal muscular atrophy — a genetic disease that affects the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement — until his death in 2004.
“I was down at my grandmother’s house a lot and grew up playing with him,” said Bergeron, who lives a short walk from her grandmother’s house in Jaffrey, where Jacob lived. “I was used to him going to occupational therapy. It really opened my eyes and made me interested in pursuing a career in occupational therapy from a young age.”
Bergeron’s grandmother Sheila Bergeron recalls numerous occasions where Kerrigan would help Jacob in day-to-day tasks like helping him get from his wheelchair to his computer chair.
“They were really close,” said Bergeron, of Jacob and Kerrigan. “She was here a lot and would always be willing to help him out.”
Bergeron works three days a week for a few hours at Rindge Memorial School and on most days begins her time in the preschool, where she will play with and watch over the children. Following her time in the preschool, Bergeron meets with the school’s occupational therapist Jen Booth, either in small groups or individually with students who need additional help.
“One thing I’ve learned is that you have to speak in simpler terms,” said Bergeron. “There are different ways to teach and approach each student and you have to learn to adapt.”
This past Thursday, Bergeron and Booth worked with three students who were asked to complete worksheets that included counting, replicating shapes, and an activity that involved “driving” down a road with a pencil, making sure to stay on the road.
“A lot of students use it as an opportunity to get a leg up in a field that they may have an interest in,” said ELO coordinator Marcea Gustafson, who said students are currently working on ELOs in horseback riding, photography, cooking, and more. “It’s a really unique opportunity for students to learn something about themselves.”
Kerrigan meets with Gustafson weekly to ensure that she is following the rigor of the program – the project culminates in a pass/fail grade after a presentation of one’s experiences in front of a panel.
Booth said Bergeron oftentimes tags along with her to help with break-out sessions, where smaller groups or individual students are assembled to work on academics and/or developing motor skills.
“Kerrigan has been doing a great job,” said Booth, who works with disabled students at RMS. “I think this is a good opportunity for her to think if this is something she wants to do in the future.”