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‘Awesomely different’

Local family visits classroom to teach students about personal differences

What makes someone different?

Ridgeview Elementary students’ hands were quick in the air. “I have braces,” said one. “My grandma has to wear hearing aids,” said another.

Added others, “He is very tall.” “She has glasses.”  “I saw someone with lots of scars once.”

Joe Hetler, Gabby’s dad, sports a T-shirt with a “high four” — a family saying that suits daughter Gabby

“Everyone is different in one way or another,” Kellie Hetler said. “Some differences are just more obvious than others.”

Her mission as a mother of “one who is awesomely different” is to help children find ways to explore differences in a positive way and to get involved with children they see as different.

Hetler and her husband, Joe Hetler, visited all first- and second-grade classrooms at Ridgeview with daughters Addy, a first-grader there, and Gabby, who was born in July 2015 with some physical differences. Gabby is profoundly deaf and has Duane syndrome, which causes irregular eye movements. She was also born with congenital birth defects in her arms, limiting arm and hand movements.

Hetler’s goal is to make children’s early encounters with someone who looks different from them positive.

“Then maybe when they see a child at the park or at the store with a limb difference or in a wheelchair it won’t be as awkward or scary for them,” said Hetler. “Maybe these kids will go up to these ‘different’ children and become their friends. Each child that we reach is one more chance that these different but awesome kids have a friend and one more chance that they will be included.”

The Hetler family poses for a picture in the Ridgeview classroom

Learning about differences

Hetler showed students Gabby’s cochlear implant, a surgically implanted device, and explained how it helps Gabby hear. Students peppered her with questions and told stories about others they knew with hearing problems.

Gabby was all smiles when she demonstrated how she negotiates tasks with limbs that do not function in the same way theirs do.

“It isn’t hard for her; it is the way she picks things up,” said mom. But the students found it  difficult to open a package of fruit snacks using only the fingers Gabby is able to use.

A few managed to get a snack successfully to their mouths, but others scrambled onto the floor to pick up snacks that scattered with the clumsy opening of the package.

Gabby has no trouble showing off while her parents chat with the teacher

“There is no reason to feel sorry for her. It is the only way she has ever done it,” Hetler said.

Dad Joe Hetler sported a T-shirt that said “High-four” in honor of a family tradition that keeps Gabby included in the game. Keeping children with differences involved is why the family visits school classrooms.

“Some kids may play a little differently, but they all like to play,” Kellie Hetler told students. “If you see a child that is different at the park, maybe you could ask them if they want to play with you.”

Having the Hetlers visit is part of an ongoing effort at Ridgeview, said special education teacher Mary Kuzawa, noting that last year Todd Pasick, “Hockey Todd,” an amputee who excelled at the game, visited the school. “Repeat exposure is important, as is allowing the students to ask questions.”

Editor’s note: What do you think? If you have an opinion about this story you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to comment in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.


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  1. Thank you for sharing this amaxing story! This world needs more people like the Hetlet family! Their message is such a wonderful message! It is so so true, showing and doing this for school age children is brilliant and sad that I feel it needs to be taught to every grade and to adults!!! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!?


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