- Associated Press - Sunday, February 15, 2015

CARLETON, Mich. (AP) - In a small room off one of the hallways at Airport High School, Harley Wagenaar looked her speech teacher in the eye and did something remarkable.

She spoke an entire sentence. Her speech was clear and without hesitation.

“The cow jumped over the moon,” the 17-year-old said.

For employees at Airport, Harley’s utterance is nothing short of a miracle. For the last few years, she has not been able to speak, according to the Monroe News ( https://bit.ly/1yhhjdy ).

When she joined Airport’s Virtual Academy in December 2013, she was not verbal. She could take the online classes and communicate with teachers and staff using an iPad, but she could not talk.

In October, something special happened. Harley began to speak.

“We couldn’t believe it when she said ‘Ah,’ ” said Julie Bennett, speech-language pathologist. “That was her first vocal production at school.”

Harley’s journey has not been easy.

In February 2012, Harley and her three siblings were in a devastating car crash in Berlin Township. The siblings were driving home from Jefferson Schools.

Iris, the driver, lost control of the vehicle and crashed head-on with another vehicle. Harley’s brother, Peter, and younger sister, Morgan were killed. Iris and Harley were hospitalized.

After the crash, Harley’s mobility was impacted significantly and she is in a wheelchair. She also has apraxia, which is a motor disorder caused by brain damage. People with apraxia have difficulty with speech.

“Her mouth and vocal chords move but she wasn’t able to make sounds,” Bennett said. “After her first verbalization we have been working on her language skills.”

Bennett uses music to help Harley speak because of the disconnect between the right and left sides of her brain.

“The left side is where the language skills are and the right side is the creative side,” Bennett said. “Music is the window through both sides.”

Harley’s verbalizations of words are through melodic innovative therapy.

To aid in her speaking skills, Bennett writes out words and then draws circles with lines connecting the dots to mimic the syllables. As she moves the pen from dot to dot, Harley is able to “sing” the word. The purpose is to train Harley’s brain through sound variations and pitch changes.

Through practice, Harley has been able to say several one-syllable words regularly and is working on constantly speaking two or three words together.

She even called her grandmother to say, “I love you.”

“That was the best day,” Bennett said. “We all cried.”

During a lesson with Bennett last month, Harley was playing a game where she would hear questions from the pathologist before finding the correct phrase and speaking it aloud.

Each worksheet had a theme word, like cow or blind.

As Harley said “the cow jumped over the moon,” Bennett’s face lit up with a large smile and so did her student’s.

“I’m so proud of you,” Bennett exclaimed. “I didn’t think you’d get that whole sentence. You’re a rock star.”

Harley attends AVA three days a week. Since she began school again, she has completed four high school courses, including ceramics, with her peers. Completing those classes are among her biggest accomplishments, Harley said.

She is taking world history, algebra, biology and language arts.

Teacher Jeanne Feldpausch said she has been pleased with Harley’s progress this school year.

“She has blossomed socially,” Feldpausch said. “She has friends and texts with them. She eats lunch with them.”

Harley said one of her biggest and most unexpected changes was starting school at AVA. She responded to submitted questions using her iPad and the help of her teachers and aide, Yvonne Burchette.

Among her favorite things about school are her teachers, friends and classes. She particularly loves her teachers.

“They know me and don’t judge me,” Harley said.

She enjoys taking the online classes because she has moved through the courses at her own pace.

“The classes are easy,” Harley said.

Her goal for school this year is to “pass as many classes as I can.”

But, she doesn’t want to stop there. Harley told staff she plans to graduate high school and even walk across the stage at graduation.

For this semester, Harley joined the high school choir taught by Kristen Nichols.

During the first few weeks, Harley was trying to learn some of the warmups while Nichols encouraged her to try and verbalize some of them.

“Whenever you feel comfortable, just join in and start singing,” the choir teacher encouraged one recent morning. “Some of this stuff is probably brand new to you, but by Thursday (Jan. 29) I want you to start to do some of the warmups.”

Harley not only loved singing, but she can read music, which is one of the reasons choir was encouraged.

When she came to AVA, Harley was far from independent.

“She depended on everyone for everything,” Bennett said.

People answered for her. Some days she did not want to work on school. She tired easily. Like any teenager, Harley had days when she was moody and difficult.

“The person she was when she got here was not someone who thought she could learn,” Feldpausch said.

The Harley the teachers and staff have come to know is a much different person.

“She is determined, strong and happy,” Bennett said. “She doesn’t want to be trapped inside.”

Bennett said Harley cracks jokes and has become “more of a person.”

“We are so lucky to have her here,” she said.

Her growth in a short time is noteworthy, the staff said.

“We are very excited about the growth she has made,” Feldpausch said. “It’s beautiful.”


Information from: Monroe News, https://www.monroenews.com

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