BHNA’s ‘Champions of Excellence’ brings fanfare to special education students across the city

FLINT, Michigan--Since its inception, the Brownell Holmes Neighborhood Association (BHNA) has made sure to support all the members of its community. Champions of Excellence (CoE), a yearly celebration of Flint’s special education students, organized by BHNA, is one of the landmark examples of the association’s commitment to its community.

Originally a carnival-type event hosted at Brownell and Holmes STEM Academies, members of BHNA had to get more creative when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city in order to still be able to celebrate the city’s special education children. 

Jeanette Edwards, President of BHNA and a paraprofessional in Flint Public Schools for more than 15 years, came up with the idea to put together a motorcade that would deliver care packages to children. Edwards borrowed the idea from the Flint Title I Parent’s group after being surprised in a similar fashion when she received the Title I Parent of the Year Award. 

The care packages, which were put together with the help of funds from organizations like the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, Consumers Energy, Hamilton Community Health Network, and Genesee Health System, among others.

Included in the 60 care packages were headphones, school supplies, toys, snacks, coloring books, facemasks, hand sanitizer, a CoE shirt, and home supplies for parents like energy-efficient light bulbs and information on healthcare through Hamilton Community Health Network. 

Due to the large number of students being served, BHNA chose to keep the motorcade in north Flint.

“The community school directors from Holmes and Brownell gave me all the addresses (of students) so we’re going to pick out the majority of them … we’re going to go to their houses in the motorcade blowing our horns, we’re going to have balloons on our cars and put them (care packages) on their porch,” Edwards said. 

For Edwards, an event like CoE is as much about celebrating the accomplishments of special education students as it is about making them feel acknowledged and appreciated as individuals within their community. 
CoE was started in part by Edwards in response to watching her grandson, whom she cares for, be left out of activities at school such as field trips because of his cerebral palsy which constrained him to a wheelchair. 

“They (teacher) told him that he shouldn’t go because it was a field trip that required walking and he’s in a wheelchair … he was crying and he said ‘I can’t go to school tomorrow,’ I asked why not and he said ‘because they’re going on a field trip and they said I can’t go’ … I was upset,” Edwards says.

Initially, Edwards treated the situation as a fluke. As a para pro, she understood that many times, teachers are not always equipped with the knowledge or resources to know how to properly interact with differently-abled students. 

Not long after that, however, Edwards said she went to visit her grandson at school during recess and she found him “in the corner sitting in his wheelchair.”

“Granny, I can’t do anything because I’m in the wheelchair,” Edward’s grandson told her.

“Then I started thinking and started watching and I saw a lot of learning support children miss out on a lot of things,” she said.

CoEs motorcade’s maiden voyage was held Friday of last week. The distribution of care packages will continue in the coming days but as now, Edwards says a second motorcade is not in the works. 

According to Edwards, CoE is about inclusion and normalization of all people. The goal is not to make children feel special necessarily but rather to allow them to feel like children. 

“They’re people too,” Edwards says. “Most of them, their self-esteem is so low and we’re trying to build them up.”

Read more articles by Santiago Ochoa.

Santiago Ochoa is a freelance reporter and communications student at UM-Flint. He is the project editor for On The Ground community reporting series and currently serves as The Michigan Times' Editor-in-Chief. Santiago has worked with publications and organizations like The New York Times, the Interamerican Press Association and Flint Beat. You can reach him @santi8a98 on Twitter and Instagram and email him at [email protected]
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