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Special students share spotlight at annual school awards banquet

Students with special challenges were honored at the March 28 549 Family Foundation "Honey Bee Gala." Samantha Jennings, front left, and Bob Rennicke were on invited to the event, along with parents Connie and Bob Jennings, left, and John and Becky Rennicke. Center, their special education teacher Ann Heinis.

"Welcome to Holland" was a perplexing theme at the 549 Family Foundation "Honey Bee Gala" March 28.

While Holland has little to do with the Perham-Dent school district--it has everything to do with public education.

Why Holland?

Because that's where expecting parents go when they raise a child with a disability.

Two handicapped Perham students were special guests for the gala and banquet: Robert Rennicke and Samantha Jennings. Both are wheelchair-bound; both born with syndromes that make them special, one-in-multi-million persons.

At a banquet event that has always served as a showcase for the best, the brightest, the most talented, and the most athletic; the 2009 edition of the 549 Foundation Gala aimed the spotlight at those less-advantaged students. Those who, despite their handicaps, are an important part of the fabric of any school district.

Speaking on the subject of education for the disabled was Ann Heinis, a retired special education teacher who taught in Perham for 28 years. She herself is the sister of a handicapped brother--at a time when the severely handicapped were sent off to an institution.

The "Holland" theme was inspired by an essay, written by Emily Perl Kingsley. In summary, the writer likened the birth of a child to a trip to Italy--to see all the beautiful art and enjoy the sights and sounds of one of the world's premiere vacation destinations.

But instead of Italy, parents of handicapped children take a detour--to Holland.

"If you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never have been free to enjoy the special, the very lovely things about Holland," wrote Kingsley in the essay.

For Ann Heinis, her career closely paralleled education laws passed in the mid-1970's. These laws required "free and appropriate education to all" and further promoted the concept of "inclusion" of handicapped students--rather than the "exclusion" that had existed in the past.

Proudly, Heinis said that Perham was among the first schools in the area to put the laws into action--to bring "Holland" to School District 549.

Parental involvement is especially important for those with handicapped children.

"You have to be an advocate for your child," said Connie Jennings, the mother of Samantha. "I'm not the most outgoing and vocal person, but you have to be their advocate."

Becky Rennicke commended Heinis for her work with her son Bob.

"She was a savior for Bob," said Becky.

"We had no concerns at all. We knew that when Bobby was at school, Ann treated him as if she was his mother," said John Rennicke, Bob's father. "With Ann, there were never any worries whatsoever."

"Even though parents of children with mental and physical handicaps never got to go to Italy...I know for certain, they cherish the very lovely things about Holland. May God continue to bless...parents who never got to Italy, but would not trade that trip to Holland for anything," concluded the essay by Emily Perl Kingsley.