Students from two schools are forming a relationship that transcends words.
Through their Community of Caring class, Olympus High students are helping out their special-needs peers at Hartvigsen School to communicate in a way they’ve never been able to.
This is done through a technology called EagleEyes, which allows students with severe disabilities to use their eye movement in place of a computer mouse or cursor.
“We’re creating empowerment for students at Olympus as well as students at Hartvigsen,” said Chip Hopkins, Olympus High social-studies teacher. “It’s bigger than the Wright Brothers to release people from isolation, and we have embraced real joy.”
Hopkins started the Community of Caring class 19 years ago to promote community service. He learned about the EagleEyes project last year and decided he had to include that as an option for his students.
About 20 Olympus High students go to Hartvigsen twice a week. They work with five Hartvigsen students, but there are only two EagleEyes units available at the school, so they have to rotate between doing EagleEyes and literacy mentoring.
Sarah Demers, a junior at Olympus High, works with 17-year-old Krystal Caldwell.
“You realize in high school that a lot of your relationships rely on talking,” Demers said. “Krystal, she and I have become really close, and we’ve never had a word of conversation.”
The way EagleEyes works is electrodes are placed near the eyes, allowing the system to pick up on the eye movement. Students are able to navigate a computer screen with their eye movements and select an item by staring at a fixed point for a few of seconds.
This allows those with disabilities to train their attention spans, learn basic skills and concepts, watch videos and play games.
Senior Amy Cummings said she has created true friendship with the Hartvigsen students. She works especially with Whitney Jasper, who’s in her final year at Hartvigsen, where students can stay up to age 22.
“I look forward to fourth period, to coming here and spending time with her twice a week and seeing that smile on her face when we get those electrodes on her,” Cummings said. “I honestly feel she has made me a better person.”
What started out as classroom curriculum turned into a desire to extend their helping hands as Olympus High kids raised funds to buy EagleEyes units for two Hartvigsen students to use at home.
Jasper was one of the recipients, and Stephanie Hopkins, an Olympus High senior, was one of the people who delivered the gift to her house.
“It was right at Christmas time, so it was like a Christmas gift,” Hopkins said. “She was so happy as soon as she knew what the bag looked like, and she got excited. She recognized us.”
Hopkins said Jasper and the Hartvigsen students help her more than she helps them.
“It makes my day so much happier just to come and interact with them,” Hopkins said. “It gives you that awesome feeling of happiness with your ability to serve people.”
If there’s one thing the Olympus High students learned so far, it is that the students they help are just regular teens trapped in bodies that don’t work.
“A lot of people think that special-needs kids don’t have the same attributes that we have in our personalities,” Demers said. “But you see Krystal, and she’s got so much sass, and it’s obvious she’s not some lifeless, personality-less person.”
Although the process may be gradual, the Olympus High kids know the Hartvigsen students are making progress, and they can see the joy on their faces.
“I’ve seen the kids excel a lot,” said junior Porter Treanor. “They all love life, and they’re just happy.”
Another party that’s involved is the Opportunity Foundation of America, whose mission is to provide EagleEyes to people with disabilities.
Debbie Inkley, the foundation’s founder and executive director, said the interaction she has seen so far is impressive and poignant.
“When the Olympus High kids first came, they were a little bit intimidated, but it took them maybe at the most two or three days,” Inkley said. “They have fallen in love with the kids here at Hartvigsen.”
To her, it’s important that people with disabilities get to spend time with others their own age.
“They all realized they’re more alike than they’re different,” Inkley said. “It doesn’t matter that Krystal can’t speak because they read through her eyes.”
On Feb. 22, Olympus High students hosted EagleEyes Extravaganza, an art auction and fundraiser that raised about $11,000. Inkley said she was pleased with the generosity displayed by the 250 attendees.
“There was a gentleman who handed a $100 bill for a soda and said keep the change,” she said. “And then he went to get a cinnamon roll and handed in another $100 and said keep the change.”
The money goes toward providing for EagleEyes units at Hartvigsen School.
From a mother’s perspective, EagleEyes is life-changing.
“It’s a whole new communication,” said Sharon Caldwell, Krystal’s mother. “For 17 years, it was like she was stuck in her own body, and now she’s able to express herself.”
Caldwell said her daughter is absolutely hooked on the EagleEyes unit she uses at home, and she’s grateful to those who raised the money for it.
“Eventually, we’re hoping that would be her communication,” Caldwell said. “What the Olympus High students do is incredible.”