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Honors, nursing students volunteer at North Florida School of Special Education

Imagine a place with sleek, clean tables and floors; where art programs are encouraged rather than cut; where students learn to bake and play with horses in addition to their courses in math, science, and English. 

That place is the North Florida School for Special Education (NFSSE), a private school that has been educating students with intellectual differences since 1992. 

While NFSSE teaches its students the skills they need at a personalized pace catered to each individual’s needs, the school also has been educating Jacksonville University’s students in the Honors and Scholars and Nursing programs. 

Former JU Professor Dr. Janet Haavisto is a big reason why the two schools work together. 

“I became aware of the North Florida School of Special Education when my Down Syndrome grandson, Andrew, enrolled in NFSSE at age 6,” said Haavisto, a former JU professor of English and the former director of the Honors and Scholars Programs.

“After exploring the school’s programs … and the excellent rapport between the students and teachers, I believed that Jacksonville University Honors and Scholars students would benefit from the opportunity to interact with these special students with intellectual differences as JU students, many of whom had not previously spent time with special needs individuals, would learn how rewarding, interesting, and fun it would be to work with them. At the same time, the special needs students would benefit from interacting with JU students.” 

JU Nursing students presented to NFSSE students on various health topics. (Provided by North Florida School of Special Education)

Volunteering at NFSSE is something all honors students do during their time in the Honors Colloquium and all Scholars students do during their time in the Scholars Colloquium to encourage personal and emotional development while giving back to their community. 

Additionally, the current director of the Honors and Scholars Programs, Dr. Daniel Moseley, and the assistant director of the Honors and Scholars Programs, Dr. Sarah Murphy, say, “Ultimately, this program provides our students the chance to broaden their horizons and develop their leadership abilities.” 

Rachel McCormick, a JU student who volunteered in the barn at the school, helped students mount and dismount the therapy horses, groomed and saddled the horses, and led them around the sensory walk, in addition to other chores around the barn. 

“I was very nervous at first and incredibly unsure as to what I was doing,” McCormick said. “However, thanks to the help of the instructors, and a friend I met who volunteered there as well, I eventually got into a routine and soon became comfortable around both the horses and the students.” 

McCormick enjoyed the experience so much that they will be continuing to volunteer at the barn whenever they have a free Saturday. 

Another JU student who enjoyed their time volunteering at NFSSE is Gabriella Valendia, who noted how friendly the staff were. Valendia recalled how the volunteers who had spent more time with the students taught them how to better communicate with and understand the students. 

“The experience taught me better interpersonal skills, teamwork, and communication skills,” Valendia said.  

In addition to the Honors and Scholars students, NFSSE has welcomed JU students in the Keigwin School of Nursing. Professor Sherri Bateh and Professor Nancy Robinson’s students started visiting NFSSE’s campus last year. 

“Jacksonville University senior nursing students have many goals to achieve in their Community Health Nursing Practice course,” Bateh said. “One goal is to apply standards of practice for community health nursing to develop collaboration, advocacy, and leadership skills to meet the changing health needs of the community.” 

Bateh expressed gratitude to NFSSE for allowing them to continue their collaboration with JU. 

“This opportunity provides them with an enhanced understanding of how they can collaborate and advocate for people with intellectual and developmental differences in their nursing careers,” Bateh said. 

While Dr. Haavisto may no longer be with JU, her legacy lives on in University’s special relationship with NFFSE, which will hopefully continue to teach JU students what she always aspired it would: “that intellectually different people are just like everyone else: caring, loving, inquisitive, intelligent, amusing, playful.” 

By Halley Powell, Student Writer