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Dancing to celebrate differences

Annual event encourages understanding

Byron Center — Toward the end of the school day on Oct. 25, Michelle Clevenger asked her third-graders to raise their hands if they liked ice cream.

She followed up with, “Who likes recess?” and saw another round of hands raised. 

The questions continued, and included “Who wears glasses?” and “Who has siblings?” 

‘Zela is one of us at Countryside. Zela is tough and has grit,’ says teacher Michelle Clevenger

Her final question: “Who has spina bifida?” To which, the entire class shouted in unison: “Zela!”

Zela Henline and her classmates wore bright colors for Neon Day at Countryside Elementary in honor of World Spina Bifida & Hydrocephalus Day.

“We wore neon today for spina bifida,” Zela explained to a visitor.

Before breaking out the giant glow sticks for a dance party, Clevenger summarized: “Spina bifida is something that you are born with. It is due to your back not closing all the way, which creates a hole in your back, damaging your spinal cord.”

She told her students that the condition disrupts or damages the brain’s signals to the arms, hands, legs and feet, which is why some kids with spina bifida use a wheelchair, or wear leg braces like Zela does.

‘It’s OK to be different’ 

Marking World Spina Bifida Day started at Countryside when Zela was in Lisa VanderVeen’s developmental kindergarten class. Every year since, the entire school wears neon colors, celebrates differences and spreads awareness about the condition. 

While they munched on homemade bright orange-colored marshmallow treats, Clevenger’s class watched the short film, “Ian,” about inclusive playgrounds, which offer equipment for kids of varying physical and developmental abilities. 

One student said afterward, “Just because you might be a little different, that doesn’t mean someone should bully you, because everyone is different.” 

Added another, “Nobody is perfect.” 

Kirsten Henline, Zela’s mom, attends the classroom parties every year, along with Zela’s twin sister, Demi. 

“I love how they’re teaching the kids it’s OK to be different, and devoting a whole day to learning from Zela,” she said. “I wish every kid had their own special day.”

Read more from Byron Center: 
His home is on the pitch
Outdoor learning opportunities grow with new structure

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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