- Associated Press - Saturday, November 7, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Gather round for a true, bold tale

About a lad from Clancy.

I’ll try to make it short and sweet

And it won’t be very fancy.

Jack Bennion is all of 6 years old and already has a book chronicling his adventures.

He’s a whirling dervish of activity as he whizzes around his Clancy home.

There are cheers when he catches a ball, hugs and kisses are fast and furious, and there is plenty of hand holding.

But mostly he is motion, pure motion, lots of it.

Jack, nicknamed “Jackpants,” is a “micro-preemie,” born about four months early and weighing 1 pound, 2 ounces. Because of his early birth, he developed cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus.

“These conditions affect his cognition, speech and mobility, but not his spirit,” a description of the book posted at Amazon.com says.

Most of his first few years he was kept away from others because his immune system was weak, say his parents, Jon and Jessi.

And as his school years approached, they worried about him making that transition to the classroom, worrying about the things that typical parents fret about: Would he be safe? Would he make friends? Would he like school?

They decided the best way to ready the class for Jack and his special needs was through a book: “The Adventures of Jackpants!” which features a cartoon version of Jack on the cover, donning a red cape and mask as he flies through the air with a large JP emblazoned on his chest.

“We wanted to start a dialogue with the class,” said Jon, 37, who is the deputy attorney general for the state.

They printed about 150 hard copies of the book, which Jon wrote and illustrated. It’s also for sale on Kindle. Jon credits Darla Panten with helping him with graphics and design.

They then went into teacher Melissa Kosena’s kindergarten classroom at Clancy Elementary School and braced themselves for the awkward, innocent questions that kids ask. Why does Jack walk the way he walks? Why doesn’t he talk? Why is he in an old man’s chair (the wheelchair he uses occasionally)?

“We struggled with how to introduce Jack to his classmates,” Jessi, 33, said, adding the book helps explain the challenges.

And, she added, that while Jack may not talk much, he understands a lot.

“We were told he would never walk or never talk,” Jessi says. “In many ways he has surpassed what they predicted.”

During the question-and-answer session, one student raised his hand, Jessi recalled.

“I just want everyone to know that Jack is my friend,” Jessi remembers him saying, and he was then joined by a chorus of other students chirping “He’s my friend, too.”

Now when the Bennions pick Jack up from school, they often see him with classmates who are hanging around and trying to communicate with him.

In the 20-page book, a student named Billy is introduced to Jack. Later that night, Jackpants arrives in Billy’s dream.

The flash was a boy

And when asked about his name

The hero was so quick

“Jackpants!,” he proclaimed

“Why?” Billy asked

With the hero in his sights

“Simple,” he explained,

“I wear pants, not tights”

In the book, Jackpants fights the villainous Hydro-C. And Billy sees the struggles that Jackpants faces and his fearless quest to prevail.

The next day at school

When he saw the new kid Jack

Billy felt he understood

And cut a little slack

If Jack’s real fights

Were anything like the dream

A fighter he was

And the two could make a team

Kosena, Jack’s kindergarten teacher, describes the book as “wonderful.”

“It was an amazing way to introduce Jack to the rest of the class,” she said via email. “I liked how the child in the book learned that Jack was different, but had his own battles to fight. The boy learned to be more tolerant because you might not know the story behind the person.

“The students are so receptive to Jack and enjoy having him in class,” she said. “They always greet him when he comes in and ask him to be at their table during snack time.”

Kosena said they accept him for who he is “and a large part of that was being able to learn about him and his family. The story, ‘Jackpants’, contributed to that.”

She said she plans on reading the book to her students every year, not only to start a discussion on a person’s abilities, but also to introduce Jack. Although he won’t be in her classroom, he will be on campus.

“I want them to know who he is and be able to say “Hi” to him as they come into contact with Jack,” she said.

Jackpants is one of many nicknames the Bennions have given their son (there’s Super Jack and Jackman). But Jackpants is the name that sticks.

Jack now spends two hours a day with his kindergarten class. And he will follow them as they progress through school, Jessi says. There is another person, Kari Kalous, an aide who is with him throughout the day. He also spends time in the resource room for special needs children headed by Rose Clinch.

“In education, there is a move for full integration,” said Jessi, who has a blog “Life with Jack” at lifewithjack.com. She added that Jack is removed from the room when there is intense learning. But, she says, studies have shown that having special needs students in the classroom is beneficial for everyone as it teaches classmates tolerance and empathy.

Kosena said Jack is doing well in school and she is happy he is in her class.

“It is heartwarming to see the rest of the students interact with Jack,” she said, adding that one of his favorite things to do is to go outside with the rest of the students.

“Sometimes, Jack is impatient and has a hard time waiting until it is time for recess,” she said. “The students know he enjoys music, so they will sing to him to keep him busy and calm until the recess bell rings. Jack is an amazing little boy who has overcame many challenges and he is such a fighter.”

Lt. Gov. Angela McLean is among the book’s fans.

“‘The Adventures of Jackpants!’ is a wonderful story about seeing the best in our fellow man,” she stated via email. “While the book is intended for younger children, the lesson applies to all of us … see the strengths in the differences that we bring to the table and in Jack’s case … the classroom. I am thankful that Jon and Jessi Bennion took the time to remind us all of this timeless lesson.”

Jon’s boss, Attorney General Tim Fox, said he has met Jack many times. Jack even tried out the trampoline at Fox’s house.

“He has the brightest smile of any child I know,” Fox says as he pulls out a photo of grinning Jack that he keeps in his office. “He’s motivated and he inspired me because of the things he has overcome.”

Jessi says that Fox once said Jack was his hero.

Fox amends that a little bit.

“Not only is Jack my hero, but Jon and Jessi Bennion are my heroes as well,” he said, adding the family is committed to helping Jack have a rewarding life.

“I am proud to know all three of them.”

Fox said the Bennions helped pass a law in the 2015 legislative session that will help all parents with special needs kids.

Jon said Congress has passed the “Achieving a Better Life Experience Act” or ABLE act, to allow people with disabilities and their families to save their own money in special accounts for disability-related expenses. Those assets do not count against them when they try to qualify for Social Security Disability or Medicaid. The act was optional for states.

He said he approached Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, and Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, about it for Montana.

Jon said he wrote and lobbied for the legislation in his free time and a few other attorneys at Crowley Fleck worked pro bono to refine it. He said Senate Bill 399 passed with huge bipartisan support (49-1 in the Senate, 100-0 in the House).

He said Gov. Steve Bullock appointed him in September as one of the five members of the ABLE Act Oversight Committee. This committee will be working in the coming months to implement the Act.

Jack is now scheduled for surgery soon to repair his left hip, which Jon says is out of its socket. He’ll be in a cast for six weeks. Jon says Jack is usually pretty agreeable to getting out of the house. But he knows that when he walks into a hospital that it won’t be fun.

But the adventures will continue, Jon says. He’s planning a book on explaining Jack’s feeding tubes that help him take in liquids and another book in which although Jack is the hero, everyone needs help from time to time.

He’s hopeful the books will help others.

As for Jon and Jessi, they say they are ready to do what it takes to meet Jack’s needs.

“We’re partners and we make it work,” said Jessi, who is preparing for her Ph.D. in political science. “We really make it work.”

You’ve now read my yarn of the famed Jackpants.

The young hero of Clancy.

This story was longer than I had planned.

And it was just a smidgen fancy.

___

Information from: Great Falls Tribune, https://www.greatfallstribune.com


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