“It just happened,” says a modest Dennis Hammerschmidt, who during the past school year volunteered more than 600 hours at the LBSA School.
Hammerschmidt started volunteering because, quite simply, he had the time. He was driving a student from and back to their home district an hour and a half away, and had lots of time in between when he wasn’t doing anything. And instead of idling the hours away elsewhere he offered to volunteer here.
At first Hammerschmidt shadowed with other students and regularly took a student swimming. Then he started spending time with Lindsay. “That one just clicked,” says Debra Herlihy, teacher at the school. “Lindsay just loved the attention from him.”
Hammerschmidt says he has experience as an instructor for children with special needs, and the fact that his wife has been a drama instructor with kids may have also rubbed off on him. Plus, he adds, “I’ve been a salesman all my life, and dealt with people of various ages … all people.” But patience may also have something to do with it, he suggests, because “some people don’t have the patience” when interacting with someone who has special needs.
As Hammerschmidt continued spending time with Lindsay, their relationship grew. “Because Lindsay is non-verbal,” says Herlihy, “some people have a hard time talking with her.” But Hammerschmidt “talks with her all morning.” They work with puzzles, sorting things, sensory exercises and apps on the iPad. They even go for walks together. All the while Hammerschmidt speaks with her conversationally, “as if she’s responding back.”
For him, though, Hammerschmidt says he does it all for the smiles, “If I can get a smile from her, that’s really a good feeling.” But as Herlihy attests, the benefit is mutual. “She just smiles and smiles, her whole face lighting up when he’s paying attention to her and talking with her.”
With Hammerschmidt and Lindsay hitting it off so well, and seeing how students may respond to similar individualized attention, the whole school has benefited. Other teachers were freed up to work more one-on-one with other students who don’t have that.
“The consistency, the predictability of having the same person every time made Lindsay happy,” says Herlihy. But still, in this special case, “there’s definitely something about him that just clicked.”
“I think it was meant to happen,” says Hammerschmidt, who will be returning to volunteer when school starts again in the fall.