`A wonderful teacher' recognized

Arc honors Atholton's Petty for her efforts as a volunteer

November 01, 2006|By Melissa Fasteau | Melissa Fasteau,sun reporter

During the school day, Cherise Petty teaches special education and family life/health at Atholton High School. Twice a month, she teaches a different group -- women at the Arc of Howard County.

Each session begins with pizza, and the women talk among themselves in a comfortable atmosphere. Petty uses role-playing and discussion techniques to teach the women -- ages 22 to 45 with cognitive and developmental disabilities -- about defining relationships, sexual harassment and interacting with men.

"They are wonderful," Petty, 47, said of her students. "I love working with this population here. They are refreshing and not deceitful."

Apparently, the feeling is mutual. Petty was named the Arc's 2006 Volunteer of the Year Award winner. She was nominated by staff members and people supported by the organization.

"We have a number of nominations for volunteer activities, and hers most matched [the goals of] the Arc of Howard County," said Cathy Hiett, an Arc executive assistant.

Petty said she was "very surprised" by the award. "It just hit me out of the blue because I didn't know [the Arc] had awards like this. ... I didn't do it for any recognition."

Two years ago, Tina Brooks of Ellicott City suggested to Petty that she consider teaching a life-coaching class at the Arc, which provides job placement, housing, vocational training and individual and family support services to people with developmental disabilities and their families.

Brooks said she thought Petty would be a good fit "because she was such a wonderful teacher, and she gets along with the kids and knows what to say. The young adults get along with her very well. Ms. Petty was a special-education teacher for a long time and knows what to say to them for the type of class that she teaches."

According to Brooks, whose daughter was student of Petty's at Atholton, the life-coaching class at the Arc provides an outlet for the women because parents cannot provide all the answers.

The women "need answers from somewhere," said Brooks. "She [Petty] is just a very comfortable person to be with, and they are comfortable with each other. [They] would not have a problem opening up and talking with her."

Linda Essenmacher, director of quality enhancement and staff support at the Arc, said Petty "has made a tremendous contribution to help young women develop healthy relationships. Everything she does for us is above and beyond the call of duty. We didn't have funding to hire someone with the background, and she volunteered."

Petty, who lives in Baltimore County and has taught at Atholton for 11 years, credits Essenmacher for making the program work. Essenmacher attends each meeting, and together they create discussion topics.

It was Essenmacher who came to Petty's class and told her about the award. The women "clapped and gave me hugs," Petty said. "They were really happy and gave me high fives."

Petty has two sessions during the year -- September to December and April to June. The growing program has nine students.

"My experience with this population is learning to be patient, nonjudgmental, learning to appreciate things and learning [that] I need to teach things in a different way," she said.

The class is called "the relationships class" by the women, said Petty. The group covers a number of topics, she said, including pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, family planning, appropriate dating behavior and expectations in a relationship. She said she often revisits topics to reinforce the learning process.

Group discussions include reminders to leave the blinds down when home alone and not telling strangers that no one else is present. Through role-playing, Petty teaches the importance of being safe, including approaching the entrance to a house with a key in hand.

Petty hopes the Arc, which is on Homewood Road in Ellicott City, can find a male instructor to teach a similar program for men.

Petty said the most rewarding part of volunteering at the Arc is "seeing or listening to [her students] relate their experiences and how [techniques learned in life coaching] worked in a negative situation."

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