Students in Mrs. Thorburn’s third-grade class have a unique opportunity to get to know students who are very different from the typical Haverford student. Through the pen pal program Mrs. Thorburn has established with The Timothy School, both Mrs. Thorburn’s students and those from The Timothy School work to overcome the challenges of autism and communicate with one another.
The Timothy School is located in Berwyn. According to its website, The Timothy School is “the oldest non-profit approved private school in Pennsylvania devoted exclusively to teaching children with autism.” Its “mission has expanded to increase community awareness of the needs of children and adolescents with autism,” and Mrs. Thorburn’s pen pal program does just that. The pen pal program is good for Haverford boys and the Timothy School students. Haverford boys gain the experience of meeting people with different abilities, and the Timothy School kids are exposed to different environments and new people. But the students don’t just write letters to one another. They meet each other in person, too. The Timothy School students typically visit Haverford in November, and the Haverford third-graders typically visit The Timothy School in April.
In an interview, Mrs. Thorburn recounted how she first got into working with The Timothy School. The Head of Lower School in the early 2000s sent out a note asking which teacher would like the experience for his or her class, and Mrs. Thorburn volunteered.
“I really put it upon my boys to be the ones who interact when the Timothy students are coming. Within five minutes the nervousness goes away and the friendships start growing. They see differences in their buddies, and they see what their buddies see in them,” she said.
Mrs. Thorburn also shared that a former student, James Landman, who is currently a senior at Shipley, has been working with Timothy almost as long as Mrs. Thorburn. James and his mom Beth Landman come in every year, along with current fifth grader Esref Erkmen, and current sixth graders Alex Borghese and I, to present to Mrs. Thorburn’s third graders before The Timothy School visits.
James Landman stresses the idea that the Timothy students aren’t all very different from us; they just see the world and act in it a little bit differently.
Mrs. Thorburn said something similar: “One of the things we try very hard to express to the third-graders is each Timothy School student has a special talent. The students and teacher both inspire me and all of us. We think the empathy part is huge. The best gift you get is a friend. The connection doesn’t end at the end of the year. It’s meaningful. It’s rewarding.”
One of the things we try very hard to express to the third-graders is each Timothy School student has a special talent. The students and teacher both inspire me and all of us. We think the empathy part is huge. The best gift you get is a friend. The connection doesn’t end at the end of the year. It’s meaningful. It’s rewarding.
My experiences with Timothy have been more than rewarding. They’ve made me look at the world in different ways. I see the Timothy students twice a year and see many of grow and change emotionally every time. One of my favorite experiences every visit is seeing my old pen pal. She still recognizes me, which always brings James’ big point back to my mind: the Timothy students aren’t that different from us. In many cases, their abilities are more advanced than ours, they just have a harder time expressing them.
One of my responsibilities when helping out with The Timothy School is to make sure everything is ready for our visit, but one of the best parts of returning is getting to interact with not just the students, but the teachers there as well. Some of the teachers have been there every year I have, and even before. The teachers share their students’ work with the third graders, and I always listen in, learning about how the teachers have methods of communicating and getting through to these students, who often want to hear but don’t know how to listen. I learn so much just from the time I spend with these students, only twice a year.
It’s the very best lesson I teach my kids: to be respectful, to have empathy, and to always treat anyone they meet as equals.
One of Mrs. Thorburn’s big goals in the program is to teach her third grade kids to care. She said, “To have kids so invested is amazing. I love that none of them are just doing it for the sake of doing it.”
I see and feel this myself too. Every year, I watch the kids meet their pen pals for the first time, and within the first five minutes of watching the kids from their respective schools interact, I see all the worries fade away, and new friends made.
The Timothy School visit is a chance to put many of the Haverford core virtues into practice.
“It’s the very best lesson I teach my kids: to be respectful, to have empathy, and to always treat anyone they meet as equals,” said Mrs. Thorburn. “Compassion is a necessary character trait.”
At the end of the program, Mrs. Thorburn’s kids no longer see the Timothy kids and other people with disabilities as different. They see them as equals, who see the world differently. We all learn a little humility, as we see that there are many different perspectives and ways of navigating through the world.
As a former third grader who has now had the chance to interact with the Timothy School students for the past four years, I agree that their visits help us practice compassion, but the day is all about the virtue of friendship, too. Seeing the Haverford boys’ looks of excitement and expectation on the bus to Timothy each spring always brings a smile to my face. They can’t wait to see their friends again. At the end of the program, Mrs. Thorburn’s kids no longer see the Timothy kids and other people with disabilities as different. They see them as equals, who see the world differently. We all learn a little humility, as we see that there are many different perspectives and ways of navigating through the world.
After the visits each year, Mrs. Thorburn has a reflection discussion with her students. They discuss feelings, takeaways, and experiences, all bringing something to the table for the others to learn about. They learn to see the world and its people through a different set of eyes.
I, too, see the world and its people differently after my experiences with Timothy. About 1% of the world’s population has autism. That’s about 70 million people. While some can communicate better than others, they all have something that we can learn to appreciate, and we are all part of a community and we all have something of value to contribute.
This partnership was featured on 6ABC on May 20. View the clip below.