Third Place Photojournalism II – Picture Story/Series
Third Place Photojournalism II – Picture Story/Series
Western Kentucky University
Story Summary: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students earning an education degree at Western Kentucky University have had to stop visiting classrooms for observations and fieldwork. Maggie Smith is a 21-year-old junior majoring in education. COVID-19 brought school challenges for Maggie, but also personal ones. She is on medication for ADHD and online learning has been challenging. But her time working with a 17-year-old autistic client, Rush Renshaw, has been a gift, an oasis in the storm. “I’m really happy that I’m able to do it because it gives me more confidence going into my field, knowing that I’ll be able to help [older] people who really need someone who understands them and is able to work with them,” said Smith. “Because I don’t think Rush gets that a lot, and it makes me very sad.” The pandemic may have limited Smith’s ability to benefit from her classes, but her commitment to working with individuals with special needs has yielded her unique opportunities through which she continues to grow as an educator and as a human being.
First image caption: Smith has ADHD and spent most of her life trying to figure out how it affected her learning. “I think that my education wasn’t individualized the way education should be. I was expected to work at the same pace as everyone around me and I constantly felt stupid,” Smith said. “I’m not stupid. I’m pretty smart. I’m not able to learn the same way as everyone else, and that’s okay, but I was never told that that was okay.”
Smith had to stop visiting classrooms for observations and fieldwork. “Now, all of my observation hours are videos, I have to go on YouTube, and watch videos that have been taken of classrooms or of just children,” Smith said.
Smith dances in circles around her living room with her roommate Grace Alexieff, to mimic ‘going on a bear hunt’ as a music and movement activity meant for toddlers. “COVID has definitely hindered my experience [this semester] a lot. I had to do an assignment with my 20-year-old roommate in the living room,” she said. “I was supposed to go into a classroom and practice with an actual class, and I did it with a 20-year-old,” Smith said.
“Miss Coronavirus has really hindered my educational process as an education major,” Smith said. She was supposed to complete hundreds of hours of fieldwork this semester in classrooms. but had to make do by watching pre-recorded videos of classrooms on YouTube. “I missed an astronomical amount,” Smith said.
Visits with her therapist have been entirely virtual for Smith since the pandemic began, but she still values it as one of the most important parts of her week. “I go to therapy once a week to better understand my own brain so that I am mentally healthy and well-equipped to help children articulate their own feelings once I am a teacher,” Smith said.
“I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was in second grade. It's something that I feel like I understand pretty well now, and I realize how deeply it affects every single facet of my life,” Smith said. Through therapy, personal growth and determination Smith has learned a lot about her ADHD, and what treatments work best. Recently, she has started splitting her Adderall pills in half and taking fish oil supplements. Smith halves the pills because she did not like how intense the side effects of Adderall she was experiencing were, and had read that taking fish oil supplements was shown to decrease the severity of ADHD symptoms.
Working with Rush Renshaw, who is a teen on the autism spectrum, has been a relatively new experience for Smith, and she was nervous at first. Smith quickly adapted and knew she should not have doubted her qualifications to work with Renshaw. “I’m working with respite care because I really have a passion for working with individuals with special needs,” Smith said.
“Now that I’ve done this, I’ll be able to take my experience with respite care and caring for individuals above the age of five who are severely disabled and I will be able to work with them in the future,” Smith said about working with Renshaw.
Smith was unsure if she’d be able to handle caregiving for someone the same size as her, as she is only used to changing the diapers of small children, but in taking care of Renshaw she realized nothing phased her anymore. It was just part of the job. “Rush is very low functioning, he is completely nonverbal, he cannot bathe himself, he cannot go to the bathroom by himself, he cannot wake himself to go to the bathroom,” Smith said.
“Working with Rush is very similar to working with a 4-year-old who has the exact same condition he does,” Smith said, “not in that I’m trying to get him to master certain skills, I’m not giving him activities to work on and to send home, I’m not his teacher, but the way that I work with him is very similar.”
Patience is a necessity as a caregiver or a teacher, Smith said, when she is frustrated, she must still react calmly and simply wait for Renshaw to come around and listen to her. “Sometimes it’s hard, you get frustrated,” Smith said. “But working with Rush, I try to allow him the space and the ability to do what he wants to do and to live the way he wants to live because he is a 17-year-old boy.”
“As Donna, [Rush’s] mom, was walking me through his routine, I just fell into place and I was just doing it like second nature,” said Smith “When I got there, I just realized I’m completely qualified for this. This is literally what I’m meant to do.”
Smith and Renshaw communicate very smoothly, though the teen is non-verbal. Smith recognizes cues about how he is feeling or what he needs through body language. “He likes holding hands and playing with the ball outside and riding a tricycle but he’s in a 17-year-olds body. So, that is Rush.” And when Rush holds hands, he makes sure not to let go.