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Updated: Friday, 15 Mar 2013, 6:35 PM CDT
Published : Friday, 15 Mar 2013, 4:36 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - When she was a special education teacher, Diane Mackey had a knack for hands-on teaching techniques.
“I've just always realized,” she said, “that people learn better when they can see and feel and experience it, 3-D, and not from a book.
“So If we learned roller skating in physical education,” she said, “I would take them to a roller rink. If we learned ice skating, I would take them up to the ice skating rink.”
All that went so well, Mackey upped the ante.
“I started doing little overnight camping trips with elementary kids. Then we started a booster club and I got this big dream to take the group of elementary kids to Disneyland in California.
So we did that as a three-day trip and some of the parents joined us and we took about 80, total. That was way back in the '80s.”
In time, Mackey moved first from special ed to adapted physical education. That’s PE adapted to meet the needs of people with varying degrees of disability.
Then she moved on to a life skills classroom.
“I ended up having a lot of the kids move along with me from my elementary adapted PE to my new classroom,” said Mackey.
“We started doing trips to kind of enhance what we were learning in the classroom. And so I was trying to teach them government one year and decided, ‘You know, we need to go to Washington, D.C.’
“And so that was the next big trip we did. We went to Washington, D.C., so that we could actually see the White House and we could see the monuments and all the different things.”
But Diane Mackey, too, deals with disability in her life. She has albinism, a condition that robs her skin and hair of color and creates vision issues. She credits her parents with teaching her how to navigate life successfully.
“They always instilled in me that I could do whatever I wanted to do,” she said, “even though I couldn't always see everything real well.
“I wanted to do gymnastics. They were scared to death but they let me do it. I wanted to dive. They thought, 'Oh Lord, what is she going to do next?' And they let me do it.
“So I grew up learning that I could basically do whatever I wanted to do.”
And what she wanted to do was teach. Even more than that, though, she wanted to run her own school.
So, eventually, she decided to retire from the public education system, raise some money, find a building, hire a staff and get to work. Her husband and fellow public school teacher, John Mackey, retired with her and settled in to run the school’s office. They called their new venture, the “ Adventurers Academy for Life Long Learning.”
The non-profit school offers specialized instruction, geared toward the individual needs of the students: everything from nutrition and fitness basics to academic subjects, social interaction skills, navigation of the transit system and job training.
In fact, some students hold down jobs at GhattiTown, a local pizza shop.
Another major focus is money-handling.
“One of our biggest frustrations,” Mackey said, “is when we go into a fast food place and we order food, and they'll order over their amount. The person behind the counter, being the nice person there, they'll say, 'Oh, that's okay.'
“No, it's not okay. If they don't have enough money, they can't order that.
“And so we also have to educate the public that these guys can learn to be responsible. They can't maybe learn at the same extent that we do or the same level that we do, but they can learn whether they have enough money or not.”
They can also learn plenty from travel. Those first tentative steps to a campground years ago have now morphed into things like a seven-day cruise to the Caribbean Islands.
And through her own imperfect eyes, Mackey watches her students grow and blossom.
“When they go to GattiTown,” she pointed out, “they don't pile their plate with pizza. They have water to drink instead of soda when they're working. They eat maybe one piece of pizza. Some don't eat any; they eat salad first. They get fruit and salad and it's, like, yes! That's what we've been talking about and they're actually doing it.
“And then we sit and sing and it just fills your heart. You know I see everybody having so much fun and learning a lot and becoming more social and becoming more independent and becoming more enthusiastic and showing their personality, not just thinking they don't have anything to offer.”
The students back her up on that.
“It helps me a lot,” said student Lindsey Dickson. “It helps me everyday; it helps me every day.”
“I used to live in Austin (with my grandparents), but they moved to Pflugerville,” said student Ashley Marie Chapman. “So the academy helps me stay in touch with my closest friends. And I like my teacher; she's really cool.”
Asked what his life would be like without the school, student Vicente Sanchez found a single word sufficient: “Boring.”
And if someone told him he could no longer attend Adventurers Academy, another single word answer: “Sad.”
Student Jacob Hesprich needed two words to describe his experience at the academy: “Work hard.”
And student Charles Cruz summed up his progress this way: “I'm never mad, not grumpy, not pouty. I'm a happy guy. I'm a smart guy.”
“They're motivated,” said Diane Mackey. “They're interested. They want to be a part of our community; they want to contribute to our community.
“That's what we're big on: We're big on helping them to feel good about themselves, helping them to know that they have something to contribute to society.”
As she spoke, the students were gathering chairs for a large circle. They all face each other and they put a small table in the middle of the circle. It represents a campfire.
You see, they’re getting ready for a big camping trip and they need to practice their campfire songs.
“I like my school,” said Lindsey Dickson. “It helps me see all my friends, see my friends, see my friends; make new friends.”
With that, the students start their first song, a three-part round.
“Make new friends,” they sing, “and keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”
And their wealth just keeps on growing.
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