“Don’t do that.” LJ Pace spoke quietly addressing peers who were making fun of his special needs friends. Calling them out made them angry, “but they didn’t do it again,” recalls the sophomore at Rockmart High School in Georgia. “I always think, ‘How would I feel if I were treated like that?’”
For the most part, Pace’s classmates are respectful of the special needs community. “But I have seen students where the ‘R’ word is used.” He remembers a boy calling the boy’s mentally challenged cousin by that word, claiming kinship made it OK. “It’s still not right,” Pace told him.
Jane Waldrop has nothing but praise for the 15-year-old Pace. She’s the branch manager of Regions in Cedartown, Georgia. “LJ spearheaded a dance for students in Polk County School District, who are served by the special needs educational department,” she says. “I was fortunate to assist him, but he handled the majority of the tasks.”
At the 1950s and ‘60s-themed event, 17 students, dressed in poodle skirts and athletic jackets, enjoyed dancing, food, Chick-fil-A donated gift bags, and a visit from the franchise’s cow mascot. Pace orchestrated every detail, including aspects pertaining to people with special needs. “He scheduled and monitored the specific training required for volunteers,” Waldrop adds. At the party, “he had therapy dogs lined up for the children who needed them, a quiet room for children experiencing sensory overload, and a room set up for parents and caregivers to take a break.”
Pace admits planning the dance “was rough.” After other student planners dropped out, Pace remained the sole organizer. Frustrated, he decided to quit – until Regions’ Waldrop offered to assist. “Without her help, that dance would not have happened. And that dance,” he says,” was the best thing in my life.” He was thrilled when the six expected guests jumped to 17.
That’s the kind of enthusiasm that fuels Pace’s multiple volunteer efforts. “I try to learn new stuff every day,” he says. For instance, a deaf neighbor prompted him to learn sign language from online videos. Since then, he’s interpreted for a deaf child at church. A gifted musician, he participates in his school’s marching band, has played piano at church, and has taught piano to a child who requested lessons. He also volunteers with Chick-fil-A’s tutoring program and, this past year, he served at Polk County’s Special Olympics event.
Last year’s Christmas With Kids, a school-wide function at Van Wert Elementary School in Rockmart, was the first time Pace worked with special needs students. “All the kids were excited, but the special needs kids were really excited,” he recalls. One girl was frightened by animals at the petting zoo. Pace took her hand and showed her what to do. “That day she learned how to pet animals,” he says. “I started thinking about how different their lives are. I just wanted to be there for them and for them to know that someone loves them.”
During the school year, he volunteers daily at Van Wert Elementary from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. before his classes begin. Although it’s classified under the school’s work-based learning program, he says, “I don’t get paid. This is like an internship for me.” Pace plans to major in special education in college. At the elementary school, he says, “I teach functional vocabulary. I make tests and create lesson plans. I help the students with their breakfast.” Each day he tries to visit each special needs class, preschool to fifth grade.
He also bonds with special needs students at his high school. “I’m more of a friend with them rather than a teacher figure. I mostly just hang out with them and show them that people outside of their classroom care about them.” Because of his experiences, he’s considering adopting a special needs child when he’s an adult.
Pace says he started volunteering because of his own “typical teenage problems. You know, relationships, friends, school. When I got involved with special needs people, it kind of took my problems away,” he says. “I fell in love with being with them just because they always make me feel better.”