Besides being a football coach at his Michigan High School, Mike Kersjes taught special education classes, dealing with children whose disabilities included Tourette syndrome, Downs Syndrome, dyslexia, eating disorders and a variety of emotional problems.
One autumn Kersjes got the outlandish idea that his students would benefit from going to Space Camp, where, in conjunction with NASA, high school students compete in a variety of activities similar to those experienced by astronauts in training for space shuttle missions. There was only one problem: this program had been specifically designed for gifted and talented students, the best and the brightest from America's most privileged high schools.
Kersjes believed that, given a chance, his kids could do as well as anybody, and with remarkable persistence broke down one barrier after another, from his own principal's office to the inner sanctum of NASA, until Space Camp opened its doors, on an experimental basis, to special ed students. After nine months of rigorous preparation, during which the class molded itself into a working team, they arrived at Space Camp, where they turned in a performance so startling, so surprising, that it will leave the reader breathless. A truly triumphant story of the power of the human spirit.
From a magazine article, educator Kersjes learned that students from all over the country could spend six days training and living like astronauts at Space Camp, a 450-acre theme park, museum and educational center at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Alabama. Knowing his high school students would relish visiting the facility, he pitched the idea to a colleague; she questioned his sanity. He mentioned it to his principal, who responded, "`You should be preparing these students... for life beyond this school, not chasing some crazy dream.'" Why would an administrator be bitterly opposed to such an enriching experience? Because these students had developmental disabilities like Down's and Tourette's syndromes, as well as emotional problems. Despite the opposition, Kersjes was determined to give his students the experience of a lifetime. With co-teacher Robynn McKinney and parent chaperones, Kersjes loaded 20 students, age 14 through 17, onto a plane from Grand Rapids, Mich., making them the first group of special education students to attend Space Camp. Kersjes recounts that most of these kids had never allowed their reach to exceed their grasp, yet there they stood, ready to take on an activity that would daunt many adults. The obstacles were plenty. From the NASA education program's initial unwillingness, to the $50,000 needed for everyone to attend the camp, they met each challenge with enthusiasm and dignity, racking up some awards along the way. Kersjes's refreshing, heart-warming account proves that faith and vision can yield great things. Agent, Mickey Freiberg. (Feb.) Forecast: Jerry Bruckheimer (for Walt Disney Pictures) has purchased film rights to this uplifting story. Handselling by store clerks to junior high and high school teachers should boost sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.