Mother’s message is everyone beautiful in her daughter’s eyesOkotoks: Team builds students’ esteem and sensitivity to others
An Okotoks mother and her daughter are shining a light on people’s inner beauty, something Sydney sees every day.
Sydney Cowling, a 14-year-old Grade 7 student at Ecole Okotoks Junior High School, cannot make it down the hall without people greeting her or asking her how she is doing.
Her mother, Loree said her daughter is a social butterfly, who makes friends easily and loves attention. Sydney also has Down syndrome, but that doesn’t define who she is, Loree said.
“Sydney’s got this ability to affect people really quickly,” Loree said. “She has a lot of friends. She can’t walk down the hall without people saying hi.”
Loree admitted when her daughter was a baby she worried about how she would acclimate to school life.
“I used to worry so much that she wasn’t going to fit in and she was going to be bullied and people would treat her poorly,” Loree said.
She followed everyone’s advice to get her daughter as much assistance as possible, bringing therapists to her home almost daily and enrolling Sydney in preschool at two-and-a-half to help her get a head start on school.
All that came to a halt when at three-years-old Sydney was diagnosed with leukemia. She spent eight months in hospital and when she was released, Loree said they had to be careful because she still had a compromised immune system.
It was a setback in Sydney’s progress, but Loree said for her it was the biggest learning experience of her life.
“When she got sick I realized as much as she needed to fit in our world, I realized how awesome her world is,” she explained.
Sydney beat leukemia, but continued to struggle with health problems. When it came time for her to attend school, Loree said her daughter’s attendance was sporadic for a number of years. When Sydney and her family moved to Okotoks she entered Grade 2 at Dr. Morris Gibson School.
Loree said she wanted to share what she had learned from Sydney with her classmates.
To do so she developed a presentation she shared with the students in Sydney’s class to help them understand the difficulties Sydney faces every day and also so they could see themselves and others as Sydney sees them — perfect just the way they are.
“With the presentation I want to present a different view of the world,” Loree said. “There is no judgment with her so she’s open to them and they can feel it.”
When students feel confident in themselves they often treat others better, Loree explained.
When Sydney was younger she also would show students what it is like for her to get through her day. People with down syndrome face a number of difficulties with motor skills, strength, health and other issues that can make a day at school much more difficult than what the average student faces.
“I would do things like put socks on their hands and give them tasks like put on your jacket and tie your shoes,” Loree said. “After I asked one boy how it felt. He said he just wanted to win. I asked him how he would feel if he could never win. After, that boy helped Sydney get ready to go outside every day so they could win together.”
Now that Sydney is at Okotoks Junior High they do the presentation together. Loree goes more in depth with the challenges Sydney faces. For example, she has a condition which weakens her muscles, particularly when she is at rest, making it more difficult to sit in a desk for a long period of time.
Sydney closes the presentation by singing, one of her favourite pastimes.
Loree said they have already given two presentations at Okotoks Junior High School and they will be giving two more to Grade 9 students in March.
“She loves it,” Loree said of Sydney. “She is such a ham.”
She said students have been amazingly receptive to the message and as a result Sydney is making friends and fans throughout the school.
For a school assignment one student named Sydney as her hero.
“I was lucky enough to receive a few magical ‘Sidney hugs’ that just lighten up your day when you’re not quite okay,” the student wrote in an essay. “Sidney is a hero to many I’m sure and of all the things I’ve learned, she taught me to see things differently.”
Loree said she wants to continue spreading her message with her daughter throughout the school division and beyond.
“I’d like to do presentations at lots of different schools,” she said. “Our goal is to speak at the national Down syndrome conference.”
Okotoks Junior High School vice-principal Erin Friesen said Cowling’s presentations have been well received and the school decided to incorporate them into their anti-bullying activities this week.
“I’ve heard very positive feedback,” Friesen said of the presentations.
Students and staff will also be wearing pink shirts today (Feb. 27) to spread the anti-bullying message.