Harbor Haven

Summer is almost here, and schools are finishing up their school year. Not only that, camp season coming up. In summer of 2006, I started attending a camp near my house called, “Harbor Haven”; Harbor Haven was a camp for children with disabilities from the NJ and NY area. I attended this camp for four summers!

Every year that I attended camp, my grandparents drove me, since it was close to my house; My camp was literally five minutes away from my house that I always passed by it general. In addition, I was always put into an assigned group with a nice, camp counselor each year for camp. The girls in my camp group were: Gabby, Daniella, Ashlee, and Jenny. They were all so nice to me, and we always had good laughs whenever we chatted in our lunch time. We always had fun times together overall, one summer after another. I always looked forward to camp every summer because I was going to be with my group of camp friends. As you can see, I loved my group of camp friends!

Furthermore, I loved the activities the camp provided every summer. I followed a schedule everyday about the activities I would be participating in with my camp group, whether be academic work (ex: math skills time), life skills (ex: cooking), or sports (ex: Karate); This camp supported academic skills, social-emotional skills, and life skills for all of their campers with disabilities. Plus, I was provided with a schedule to have at home, and my camp counselor always held onto a binder with the camp group schedule. It was always helpful to have a visual schedule of my summer because I got to see what fun activities I would be doing in camp each day. One of my favorites about camp was the field trips that the camp went to on every Friday. For example, I remember going to a huge, Tennis complex, to learn to play tennis. Another one of my favorites were having inflatables every other week; The inflatables were like obstacle courses to me, so I always had a blast on them, racing against my camp friends. I cannot forget about going swimming in the pools almost everyday at camp; I loved that I got to go swimming when it was so hot out, and even on rainy days. In all, I loved going to Harbor Haven!

In Art time with camp friends: Ashlee and Daniella

When I found out in 2009 that my camp was closing after that year’s summer season, I was devastated. I was heartbroken because I loved all of the memories I made in this camp. Since my camp closed, I lost contact with my group of camp friends. Every summer after camp closed, I was reminded about my camp memories, especially about my camp group friends. I even told to my group of best friends, which I mentioned about them in my last blog, about how much my camp group friends meant to me. I always wished I would get together with them one day again.

Almost 10 years later, and in 2017, my wish came true! I reconnected with a couple of my camp group friends: Daniella and Gabby! I was, and still forever thankful because they mean a lot to me. I couldn’t believe this happened in the same year; It was very interesting how I reconnected with them.

One day, in March of 2017, I was in one of my college classes at Brookdale Community College, which was about developing research skills; It was one of my academic classes that I took, which was provided by the disability services through my college. In the beginning of class, my professor was taking attendance, and I heard my professor call out one of the students in my class. My professor called out this student’s name: “Daniella Farras”. As soon as I heard that name, I was thinking that her name sounded very familiar. In the next, few, class sessions of this class, I was talking to this classmate because she seemed nice and everything. One day in this class, she mentioned to me that my name sounded familiar, but she was not sure from where. That moment made me realize something..

One, Saturday in March, I went through my memories box that I have in my room, and looked through my camp section of my box, from pictures to other stuff. By the following class session and during our break, I showed Daniella a picture from when I was in camp; The picture was me and one of my camp friends, which I believed it was her. As soon as she saw my picture, she looked at me as if she knew something was familiar. Then, with a happy, surprise look, she said, “OMG, I do remember! You look so different now than from back then!” From that moment on, we caught up on a lot from the years that we weren’t together in person. We have been connected online and have been hanging out since.

Daniella and I at my 21st birthday celebration!

After being reunited with Daniella, in a class at Brookdale Community College, this helped me reconnect with another camp, group friend, Gabby. On April 2nd, 2017, I was chilling at home and was checking up on my social media accounts. I decided to search up Gabby because Daniella shared with me that they are connected online. Based on Daniella, which I was friends with online by then, I found Gabby. I reached out to her via message with a picture of us. After I messaged and shared the picture of us, Gabby responded back saying, “Yes, I do remember you. How are you!? It’s been so long”. We chatted for hours that day! Eventually, we decided we wanted to see each other because we thought it would be amazing to be together in person again. Since I am from NJ, and she is from Staten Island, it took some time to plan out a good day for us to be together. On August 26th, 2017, we reunited in person at my house. When that day came, I was kinda nervous at first because I was not sure how our reunion would turn out. It turned out better than I expected! Today, we have been connected online and hanging out since.

August 26th, 2017: Gabby and I reunited at my house!

I am so thankful I went to Harbor Haven as my camp. I developed on various skills, while gaining my own camp experiences. The best part for me was having a group of camp friends, in which a couple of them, I am connected with today! If you want to check out Harbor Haven’s website, please click on this link: https://www.harborhaven.com

Daniella, Gabby, & I together for my 21st birthday celebration!

Extended School Year Program

Following from the year that my camp closed, my parents reached out to the Child Study Team in my elementary school. My parents wanted to sign me up for my town’s school district Extended School Year Program, since they felt that the program would benefit me a lot. As I finally learned through my Education courses from my college, students with disabilities who have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) are eligible for Extended School Year program in their town’s school district, which provide special education services in the summer. However, there are certain qualifications to be approved. For example, parents could claim for their child/student with a disability that they may forget most of what they learned during the school year, like being able to re-acquire previously, learned skills into the new school year. Although, this has to be proved by data in the student’s IEP goals, such as lost about two-thirds of skills learned in the school year prior. As for me, I had to get approved by my elementary’s school Child Study Team. Based on my IEP and my disability, I was approved.

I participated in my town’s school district Extended School Year Program for one summer; The program was only for four hours per a day, five days a week. It was not the same as camp, but I enjoyed it. I was in a school building with classmates with disabilities from all over the school district; It was in my town’s Early Learning Center school. I was placed in a classroom with students in the same grade as me, no matter the type of disability. I attended speech-language therapy and related-art classes/specials (Art, Gym, & Music), and practiced my academic skills (Math, Reading, and Writing) and social-emotional skills (Recess), just like in the regular school year. I always loved learning, so it was great that I got to learn in the summer time, instead of being home for two whole months. After participating in the program, I felt like I improved various skills.

For educators, parents, and anyone who is helping a student or child with a disability, I highly recommend them participating in the Extended School Year Program in whatever town’s school district you are part of. The special education services received in the summer are individualized to help the student or child with a disability maintain and not lose progress of skills they made towards their goals, which are established by the student or child’s Child Study Team in the student or child’s IEP. If it wasn’t for the Extended School Year Program, all of my skills would have regressed. I thank to my elementary school’s Child Study Team for allowing me to participate in the program, to all of the teachers/therapists of the program for understanding my IEP goals, and my parent’s love and support for me to attend this program, in order to get to where I am at today.

From A Picky Eater to A Healthy Eater

When I was younger, I was a very picky eater. My parents had a hard time trying to get me to expand my food palate because I only ate any foods made of carbohydrates and sugars. For example, these were some foods I ate daily because they were my favorites: fried syrup bread (fried french toast), banana with sour cream, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, pizza, mac & cheese, oreos, and M&Ms. I ate only these foods in and out of home, that was how picky of an eater I was. For example, when it came to packing lunch for camp, since I used to attend camp as a kid, I always told my grandma I only wanted to take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or banana and sour cream. That was it! As you can tell, any of these foods I ate were not the best foods to eat.

I did not start eating healthy until I was in high school. With my mom’s help, I learned to expand my food palate; I needed to learn to eat protein/meats, vegetables, and fruits. When I first started out, my mom wanted me to eat my favorite foods only three times a week. For instance, I remember learning to eat eggs for breakfast; It was hard for me to have eggs all the time, so having fruit salads as well helped me learn to change up my meals for breakfast that were healthy. In all, I learned a lot already and the beginning of my healthy eating journey was not easy. I remember I used to get frustrated because I had days in which I rather have my favorite foods than foods I were eating now at this point, such as asparagus and meatballs. Eventually, I learned to mix my favorites within vegetables and proteins/meats, like having chicken and broccoli with cheese, and having fruits instead of oreos and candies for some meals (ex: breakfast, snacks, and desserts). I will say again that it was not easy to change my eating habits, but I was determined. Towards the end of my high school years, I started learning to bake and cook because I was so proud of my transformation, and I was inspired to learn to cook and bake from TV cooking and baking shows that I watch on Food Network channel and Cooking channel.

Today, I’ve learned so much about healthy eating over the years that I currently eat mostly gluten free foods and all-natural foods. Plus, I learned other skills, like baking and cooking healthy foods with various tools and equipment, and not eating in a routine. I will be honest, I tend to eat my favorite foods on special occasions, vacations, and holidays, but otherwise, I still eat healthy for majority of the year. Overall, I believe I really transformed from a picky eater to a healthy eater. Please check out my slideshow of foods I bake and cook for my family and I!

My group of best friends

My best friends since middle school!

I am so thankful this happened when I was in middle school: my speech therapy teacher created a social skills program for students with disabilities to help these students develop social skills; I was included in this program. I attended this as a class once a week instead of going to gym class. By the end of my middle school years, I had my own group of friends! They became my best friends, and they still are my best friends today.

My best friends are: Shelby, Hilary, Alyssa, Justina, Jenna, and Sam. I wanted to feature them in this blog story to show how much they mean to me in my life. All of them have accepted me for who I am since day one. I remember when my friendships were formed with them, which were throughout middle school. In 6th grade, Shelby and I had a lot of classes together. When I met her, she was nice and kind! We chatted a lot in our classes, which led to our friendship. She became my first friend in middle school, and has been my friend since.

In 7th grade, I met Hilary, Alyssa, and Justina. I met Hilary through a class together in which we were the only two girls in. True story! Hilary was so sweet and friendly when I met her. We had good times together in our class. Since then, we always had fun and good times together! Through Hilary, I met Alyssa, and this occurred in our lunch period. Alyssa was nice and kinda shy when I first met her. As the year went, I learned Alyssa and I have so much in common. For example, we use to watch the same TV show called, “WipeOut”, and we always talked about it in lunch. Ever since, we still have so much in common in our friendship! Then, I met Justina through a classmate from elementary school. There was stuff that happened between her and my classmate, but despite that, Justina was so nice and friendly when I met her. She still is nice and friendly! Eventually, she joined Hilary, Alyssa, and I at our lunch table in lunch. In 8th grade, we even had classes together and helped each other a lot in our classes. In 7th grade, I decided to have my birthday party with Hilary, Alyssa, and Justina, and it was a lot of fun! This was the first hangout I planned at my house, true story.

In 8th grade, I met Jenna and Sam. I met Jenna when she was feeling down about the situation with her friends at her other lunch table, and I saw she noticed Hilary at our lunch table one day. She asked if she can join us, and I let her join our lunch table. I knew that Hilary was friends with Jenna already, so I thought it was fine. Jenna was so nice and awesome when I met her, and she still is so nice and awesome! It still will always be funny to me that she is from Brooklyn because I was born in Brooklyn, and most of my cousins live there. Furthermore, Sam was the last one I became friends with. She was so friendly and kind when I met her; I met her in my math class, and I learned she has been best friends with Alyssa and Hilary since elementary school. Sam and Justina got me through joining their Language Arts class in the middle of 8th grade. It was not an easy transition, but they got me through that time. Eventually, all of us became best friends!

Since middle school, I have gotten together with everyone for hangouts, parties, events, and etc. Despite that all of us attended different high schools, half of us attended Marlboro High School and the other half attended Colts Neck High School, it did not get in the way of our friendship. The best was when all of us attended college together at Brookdale. That was the best because we were all reunited in the same school again. We created so many memories being in college together! Through everything, they always have been there for me in bad and good times. Now that we are currently planning for our futures, such as transferring to four year colleges or full time working, we are still there for each other no matter what.

In all, I learned through my best friends that it is not just being present, it is also about being loyal, honest, accepting, and above all, to love and be loved. I am so thankful and love all of them as my best friends! Please check out the video I created, to witness more about how much my best friends mean to me in my life.

Autism Speaks Blog Story Reflection

May 28th, 2014 was when I first shared about living with Autism online. I was 16 years old when it was published as a blog story. It was not an easy decision, but I was inspired to share about what it is like living with Autism by an Autism Speaks blog story of someone living with Autism that my dad shared with me.

Today, it’s been exactly five years since my story of living with Autism was published! There were changes and updates I made in my life. To start, I recently graduated from college! That was one of my biggest milestones in my life! Plus, I decided I really wanted to be a teacher assistant/paraprofessional; I learned that even though they do not make a lot of money, I knew I can make more of an impact on lives of students, especially for students with disabilities. I felt that I can support a teacher’s teaching instructions and methods too, since I love working as a community. That was a belief that I still kept in my mind since then. In addition, I got to take American Sign Language courses at my college and have continued to learn on my own time. I knew how much ASL could help people as its own form of communication, and I knew ASL can benefit for my career. In all, I really want to help and continue making an impact on people’s lives.

Overall, I’m very thankful that I shared my story online! Since then, I was inspired to have my own web presence, Exceptional Shell, on various social media applications or platforms. I continue to share about living with Autism, and I educate about other disabilities, based on my own experiences about them. Let’s see where my life goes on in the next 5 to 10 years.

Brookdale Community College

I decided to attend Brookdale Community College after attending their open house day, which was back in Fall of 2016. One of my friends from high school, Ashley, was giving a tour of the college campus, so she gave me and other future students a tour; She provided information about the college and shared her own experiences there, while giving the tour. Also, I decided to attend Brookdale because I wanted to attend college in general, and I knew the college was close to home. Brookdale Community College was where I created all of my college experiences.

Back in summer of 2016, I started my college career at Brookdale. That’s right, I started right away after graduating from high school! I had to take some remedial courses before taking courses in my major, due to the results of my Accuplacer college placement exam. At first, I felt very disappointed that I had to take so many remedial courses before taking my major career courses, but I learned eventually it was ok. These courses ended up benefiting me because it helped me developed skills that I had a hard time with before, such as reading and writing skills. Plus, I received tutoring through the disabilities services at my college because any student who was registered through them received that option; I am glad I had tutoring in the beginning because it helped me learn to time manage my college studies and my job. I highly recommend students with disabilities to register with their college disability services department because they work with you about your accommodations and modifications. After my first year of college, I was happy I finished all of my remedial courses!

In my second year of college, I started taking my college major courses, and I decided to get involve in the college community. I knew getting involved the college community would help me get to know other students attending the college, and expanded my resources and opportunities for my major and my future. I was a member of the National Society of Leadership and Success and Education Club. In my last year of college, I took on being Co-President of the Education Club; I provided and hosted informative meetings, events, and opportunities for future educators and para-educators. From these clubs and organizations, I made new friendships and received many opportunities through the club/organization advisers, such as getting to do field experience observation and internship field experience in my town’s school district. People need to get involve on their college campus to expand their horizons and gain experience for their future.

Throughout my time at college, I spread my courses out, so I would not take so many within the same semester; This helped me a lot with not getting overwhelmed nor stressed out as much. I learned to take my hardest courses in the summer terms, since it was only one course I would have to focus on to do well. Since my college has three summer term options, I took four summer courses in total and in all summer term options: one course back in 2016 (summer term 1 -> 6 weeks), one course in 2017 (summer term 3 -> 6 weeks), and two courses in 2018 (one in summer term 1 -> 6 weeks & the other in summer term 2 -> 1o weeks). In the winter term, since it’s a 10 day term between fall and spring semesters through my college, I took courses I felt I can do really well with in a short amount of time. I took two winter term courses in total at my college, the first one was in person and the other was online. Plus, as of summer of 2018, I took four, college courses of my major online. I demonstrated that I was self-dedicated to do my college work at home. I aced every single of my online courses that I took! In all, I took every term and kind of class option (in person and online) that was available at my college.

About taking online courses, I loved taking courses right in the comforts of home. My house is a calming environment for me, and I actually have gotten more work done at home than I do at college. I had my days in which I gotten frustrated because I did not understand the class material, but my online professors were very resourceful, and they let me use my accommodations/modifications, such as extended exam time. I know this may not work for everyone, but if you feel you have the ability to teach yourself the class material and are dedicated to balancing the college work at home, I recommend taking online courses. Also, I highly recommend for students with disabilities to spread their college courses out because it will help balance college work and other life responsibilities, such as employment. Spreading out my college courses helped me get through college.

On Thursday, May 16th, 2019, I graduated from Brookdale Community College! I graduated from college with a 3.9 GPA. I am thankful for the opportunities and services I had received, and for the amazing professors I had throughout my time at college. I will carry on the skills and knowledge that I learned from college, and into my career as a Teacher Assistant/Paraprofessional.

Teacher Appreciation

Happy Teacher Appreciation!

I want to take a moment to thank all of my professors, teachers, and teacher assistants that I had throughout my education. Every kind of educator has made an impact on me in their own ways: from building my leaderships skills to helping me discover my passion for the Education field as my future career. I had so many positive and unforgettable experiences throughout my education, so I will forever be thankful for everything they have done for me. I cannot wait to see what my life has in store for me! Thank you and Happy Teacher Appreciation!

Therapy Dogs

On Thursday, May 2nd, I attended a Therapy Dog event at my college, Brookdale Community College, for their anti-stress week. The moment I saw each of the therapy dogs, I was so excited to see them! I will admit that I was kinda shy at first to pet them, but I believe the dogs sensed my shyness, so they just came right by me, to let me know in my mind that they will not hurt me. Also, I had to remind myself in my mind that the dogs are nice and friendly, like my own dog, Snowy. Once I started petting them, they automatically made me feel happy and calm. Therapy dogs really do provide so much comfort and calming effects!

To anyone with Autism or any other disability who ever felt shy or scared to pet an animal, such as a therapy dog, please understand that it is ok. It took me a long time to pet animals, like my own dog, Snowy. I learned from this event and other experiences with animals that dogs are so emphatic and understanding in their own way that they get who people are as individuals. If you ever feel down or scared about any animal, remember they are here to be a friend and guide for you. It will take time, but they really will make you feel better about yourself. I am so thankful that I got to attend this event at my college!

Autism Speaks Commercial: MSSNG

https://www.mss.ng/

In November 2014, I was 16 years old when I approached by a worker from Autism Speaks and requested that I be featured in their commercial called, “MSSNG”. I learned that the commercial’s message was to promote research for Autism. My parents thought that this was a scam because people would not get opportunities like that, so they had to check on Google to make sure that this worker was actually a worker from Autism Speaks. It turned out that this worker was actually a worker from Autism Speaks, so the email was valid. I thought to myself that never in my life I would be part of a commercial before. I will never forget that I screamed with happiness and was jumping up and down about it!

It was an amazing experience being filmed for the Autism Speak’s Commercial! I was filmed for their commercial at Silver Cups Studio in NY, where famous movies were made in, such as God Father 2. My parents and my little sister came with me inside the building to see me get filmed. The building had a bunch of levels, so the level that I was filmed for the commercial in had a cooking show set, a small kitchen area for people to have snacks and stuff, and other studio rooms. I was in a studio room where there was a green backdrop and a wooden chair on one side of the room, and workers from Autism Speaks with their professional cameras on the other side of the room. I was directed to model while the director was zooming a professional camera on me back and forth. My parents and my little sister watched me being filmed from in the studio room next door, since it had a glass window into my studio room. My little sister was laughing the whole time about the camera being zoomed back and forth on me, haha!
I will be honest, it was hard for to stay still for so long, but I was so happy to be getting filmed. The director of the commercial and the other workers from Autism Speaks were very nice to my family and I throughout this experience. Overall, I am so glad I got to be a role model for people with Autism by representing in the Autism Speak’s Commercial.

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