Setting Differences Aside

Setting Differences Aside with an Extraordinary Partnership
by Patricia Trenchak

South Plainfield, NJ – January 23, 2017 – The South Plainfield Middle School and The Lakeview School New Jersey Institute for Disabilities will hold an assembly called “With Differences Aside” on February 3, 2017 at 10am for South Plainfield 7th and 8th grade students. The South Plainfield students will actually be able to experience what it’s like to be disabled and see how to look past disabilities to see the person within. They will interact with the children of Lakeview and will participate in a training which encourages them to communicate without using their speech, play with toys while using adapted equipment, and move using a wheelchair, crutches or a walker. The experience will who them how technology can enhance a student’s independence.
“The With Differences Aside began in the fall of 2003 in order to provide our students with special needs the opportunity to interact with their non-disabled peers in the community,” said Supervisor of Education and Testing at The Lakeview School Judi Alfano, who will be presenting the program on February 3rd. “Through this training, the students without disabilities get an opportunity to see how technology and adapted equipment helps to ‘level the playing field’ for students with disabilities.  A child’s curiosity moves them to ask questions, and through this program, they have that opportunity to not only ask the questions, but to experience the answers as well.  When this occurs, we have found that the differences that people see between people with and without disabilities is put aside, and the person is seen.”
The two schools partnered last year in efforts to embrace one another’s differences and offer mutual support. Over the past year, the students have made visits to each others’ schools. The South Plainfield Middle School MakerSpace Technology Program and the Students Doing Good Service Program have been extremely active in the partnership.
“I believe that South Plainfield students can learn a lot from the Lakeview Students,” South Plainfield student Theresa Lanzetta said. “For instance, reminding them everyone is different, even through their imperfections, they’re perfect. Meeting the wonderful students, and the staff at Lakeview was an honor, an amazing opportunity.”
“The visit to Lakeview was a really eye-opening experience that I loved,” said Rena Li, South Plainfield student. “I learned that most of the kids think how we think, they just have difficulty expressing their thoughts.”
“I learned that even if children have disabilities, they still are like every child,” said Sam Cheng, South Plainfield Middle School student. “Whatever we want like clothes or phones, they also want that too.”
“The partnership breaks down barriers between disabled and non-disabled students,” said Lynn Sikorski, former principal of The Lakeview School. Sikorski, who retired last year, fully supported the partnership between schools adding, “The South Plainfield students gain an understanding of the needs of students with multiple disabilities as well and see how they are more alike than different. I think the partnership between schools is a wonderful idea. ”
Former Middle School Principal Kevin Hajduk, who is currently Kennedy School Principal was also an integral part of the partnership. Hajduk said, “I was looking into partnering with area schools to help increase the awareness of our outstanding programs at the Middle School. I first learned about Lakeview through Middle School parent Patti Feeney. It is a wonderful place where learning is valued just as much, if not more, than the South Plainfield Middle School.”
The Lakeview School New Jersey Institute for Disabilities in Edison, NJ is a place of learning and discovery for many children with multiple disabilities. It is one of the largest day programs for children with disabilities in the country with 180 students enrolled ages 3 to 21 years old from 12 New Jersey counties.
“My daughter Brianna attends The Lakeview School and has made enormous progress over the years. Brianna has Pallister Killian Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder.” said Patricia Feeney. “Children like her, who may be nonverbal or have difficulties in communicating, learn to communicate with switch operated toys and devices. Since my son was in the MakerSpace technology program at the Middle School, I thought would be wonderful if they could convert toys for the Lakeview students. Little did I know that the relationship between the schools would grow like it has.”
“There are two types of switches,” said Special Education Teacher Diane Ackerman, Brianna’s teacher at The Lakeview School. “One type of switch plugs into toys or the computer and the other is used as a basic voice output device to relay a message. They both can help the students learn to communicate by learning cause and effect. When they touch a switch, something is activated or said. It also gives the students an opportunity to socially engage with staff and peers.”
“MakerSpace is a Middle School Program designed to encourage students to collaborate on projects focusing on science, technology, engineering, art and math,” said Teacher Christine Brandenburg, one of the teachers who head up the program.
“We went to work immediately to find ways to collect toys and convert them using switches that Lakeview students could use,” added Teacher Carolyn White, who also heads up the MakerSpace program. “We even took soldering classes to learn how to attach switches to the batteries of the toys.”
“We also believe that the Lakeview students will impact the Middle School students even more then making switch operated toys,” said Brandenburg and White. “As educators and as parents, we often worry about how technology is affecting our children’s communication skills. We want to ensure that our students have empathy for others. We see this project as the perfect marriage of technology and social consciousness. Hopefully, the MakerSpace students involved will gain an understanding of people with challenges while learning some new technology skills.”
As the students progress through the early grades at Lakeview and the children learn the essential lesson of cause and effect, many students are able to communicate using computers that are mounted on their wheelchairs.
“It is a surreal experience to be in the classrooms of the older students at Lakeview and have conversations with them with the help of their computers,” said Feeney.               “Students at 15-years- old, who are non-verbal like my daughter Brianna, can hit a button on the computer or in the headrest of their wheelchairs and talk through the computer. This eliminates the frustration of the children who just want to be understood. They laugh with each other, tell jokes and participate in class.”
“Technology gives back to our students what the disability took away,” said Alfano, “The students are able to express themselves and be heard and that is extraordinary.”
“The students at Lakeview just want to be accepted for who they are, just like we all do,” said Sikorski. “They want interaction with others and don’t want people to think that their disabilities define them. They are ‘people first’ with the same interests, feelings and hopes as non-disabled individuals.”
In March of 2016, a group of students and staff from South Plainfield Middle School visited The Lakeview School to meet the students they would be providing the toys for and to begin building friendships with their disabled peers. The MakerSpace students were joined by the Middle School’s Students Doing Good Program.
“Students are nominated for the Students Doing Good program by Middle School Staff, who choose students who are observed inconveniencing themselves for others,” said Middle School Student Assistance Counselor Joretta Strayhorn, who leads the Students Doing Good Program. “The students are interviewed by members of the Middle School Safety Team. Upon the conclusion of the interviews the new inductees are determined. The students are involved in various activities such as Kean University Leadership Day, South Plainfield Middle school leadership week and working with students with special needs in other districts.”
South Plainfield student Julianne Ferraro commented after the trip to Lakeview, “When I grow up, I really want to work with special needs children. The trip to Lakeview School was a great experience for me. I hope I can go back to Lakeview again.”
“It was incredible for me to see my son and the other Middle School Students paired in the classroom with Lakeview students their own age,” said Feeney. “The Lakeview students expressed their opinions, answered questions and worked on an art project side-by-side with with their new South Plainfield friends.”
One Lakeview student said with the help of his computer, “I want to have more friends.”
Another Lakeview student added, “I love music and want to be a DJ!”
“The program in place like the one between South Plainfield and Lakeview will have long term positive impact for our students,” said Sikorski. “Change comes with education and knowledge. Providing the South Plainfield students with these shared experiences and educating them in the needs of our students will be the impetus for changes that will improve the quality of life for our students. Raising awareness is key and integrated experiences such as these help all individuals learn and share the stage for change.”
Hadjuk added, “Both schools will benefit because they will learn from each other and value the fact that although they are educated in different ways, both schools have high expectations for learning and have an obvious respect for students with disabilities.”
“Even on my bad days, I feel that I take those days for granted,” said South Plainfield student Theresa Lanzetta. “What I learned during my visit to Lakeview is that some people have it worse. I look up to the kids I met during my visit. To me, they are so strong to be fighting their daily obstacles while smiling.”
“Many people don’t meet many children with disabilities.  The disabilities can be unfamiliar or misunderstood,” added Ackerman. “Visiting our school can be a life long learning experience. It gives students the opportunity to see our students participate in ‘typical’ activities such as gym and art. They might buy a school lunch or feel sick and go to the nurses office, just like they do. They have expectations and goals as far as leaning, they just might do it in a different way. Our students may not walk or talk but they enjoy being spoken to, played with, comforted. The like to be silly and laugh.”
“I feel like the partnership with Lakeview can last a life time,” said Hajduk. “I definitely felt like I connected with the students even though at first I thought I would not be able to. It was very interesting to see that the students were interested in the same topics as most teens in the Middle School.”
“The impact our students make on others is positive and eye opening,” said Ackerman. “Middle School students are at the age where they can understand acceptance, differences and tolerance. This can hopefully carry over to not just disabled children button people of different race, religion, backgrounds, etc. It could help to build positive relationships between any and all people because we are all different.”
In May of 2016, six students from Lakeview visited The South Plainfield Middle School. Escorted by Middle School students excited to lead the Lakeview students through the hallways of their school, the Lakeview students navigated through the busy school enjoying every minute.
“An interaction with our students can foster patience, looking at the world differently, creativity and discovery,” added Ackerman. “They may grow up and want to teach, be in the medical profession, engineers or an endless number of professions that can improve the quality of someone’s life. Maybe this started with a visit to Lakeview spending time with a student who maybe can’t walk, talk or see, can change the world forever.”
“I felt that the students were very happy that we came to their school and they then came to ours,” said Hajduk. “The partnership will be a great experience for all students for many years. I will continue to be the biggest advocate for the partnership, even though I am not the Principal of the Middle School.”
“When there is the opportunity to spend time with a person with a disability, all of the differences go aside and the two people become primary; not the disability,” said Alfano. “Whenever you have an opportunity to learn about people, talk with them, play with them, spend time together, etc. you open your world to the many possibilities. Our students enjoy when students visit them and when they can do things together. We like showing how we do the same things, and like the same things that students without disabilities do, except we may do them with adaptations.”
“Even though a child or a person is disabled, it surely does not mean that they are less qualified to be a friend,” said Brian Gallagher Middle School Student. “South Plainfield students can learn many things from the students at Lakeview and even be their friends. They can learn about each other’s struggles, hopes and dreams.”
Alfano added, “It has long been known that in order to make a difference in this world, we must do what Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘if we wish to create a lasting peace, we must begin with the children’.”
During February 3rd’s With Differences Aside assembly, The Middle School plans to present the Lakeivew students with several switch operated toys and devices that have been donated. The students have worked hard to convert the toys to switch operated devices. Plans for the Middle School’s next visit to Lakeview are underway.

Wheels for Bri – An Incredible Day!

This article came out today on the front page of the Courier News!  It was posted on

Wheels for Bri was an amazing event! After months of planning and anticipation, we had an extraordinary day! I am so grateful for everyone who came out and for everyone who supported the event. I have never experienced anything like this before. The outpouring of love and encouragement was incredible!

It was wonderful to have Mayor Anesh get the runners ready for the race!

It was wonderful to have Mayor Anesh get the runners ready for the race!  Brianna’s big sister Bridget got to send them off with a “Ready, Set, Go!” into the megaphone!

My friend from college was one of the 5k race winners!  Go Villanova!

My friend from college was one of the 5k race winners! Go Villanova!

Runners at the finish line

Runners approaching the finish line!

Runner approach the finish line!

Joseph's teacher Mrs. Marra ran the 5k!  It was wonderful to have so many teachers and students participate from Grant, Riley and Lakeview Elementary School!  So many from school came out!

Brianna’s big brother Joseph’s teacher Mrs. Marra ran the 5k! It was wonderful to have so many teachers and students participate from the kids’ schools – Grant, Riley and Lakeview Elementary School! So many from school came out!


Brianna enjoyed the live music!

Joseph's teachers from Grant came out to support the event.  It was awesome to have Miss Gross be apart of the day!

It was awesome to have Miss Gross be apart of the day too!

Family Came from Western Pennsylvania

Family came from Western Pennsylvania to be apart of the big day!

Friends came from great distances too!

Friends came from great distances too!

My friends Crystal brought her 3 week old newborn

My friend Crystal brought her 3 week old newborn Rose.

Brianna liked watching Mayor Anesh get dunked!

Brianna liked watching Mayor Anesh get dunked!

Mayor Anesh in Dunk Tank

Mayor Anesh in the dunk tank!

Bri met two service dogs and got to pet them!

Bri met two service dogs and got to pet them!

All in all, it was an amazing day! I am so grateful for everyone who worked so hard to organize this event and volunteered to make it a huge success! Many people are sending me their pictures and video so I’ll post more from the day as I get it! Thank you!

Wheels for Bri – Our Friends and Neighbors Rally to Help Us Purchase a Van that has Handicap Accessibility!

Brianna with kids

Brianna and her brother Joseph and sister Bridget at Mr. Subs

I would like to thank Mr. Subs and everyone who came out to support my daughter Brianna and the upcoming fundraiser Wheels for Bri!  After an incredible turnout, Mr. Subs located at 100 South Plainfield Avenue, donated 15% of every purchase that was made between 4pm and 8pm.

Brianna was born with an extremely rare genetic disorder called Pallister Killian Syndrome (PKS). Because of this debilitating disorder, she is blind, unable to walk, talk or sit up. Now 6-years-old and 52 pounds, Brianna is quickly outgrowing her infant car seat. We are in desperate need of a handicap accessible vehicle to transport her safely in her wheelchair to doctor and therapy appointments. The vehicle will cost upwards of $60,000 and help is needed to generate the funds.

The Wheels for Bri fundraising event will take place on May 16th from 9am-2pm in Veterans Memorial Park on Plainfield Avenue behind the South Plainfield Senior Center. The event will kick off at 9am with a 5k, followed by a one-mile Family Fun Walk. There will also be a prize presentation for race winners, food, live music, 50/50, tricky tray, dunk tank, vendors, bounce house, games and many more activities for the kids.

Held in conjunction with the Mayor’s Wellness Fair, South Plainfield’s Park Community Church is organizing Wheels for Bri. The fundraiser has gained the support and partnership of The South Plainfield Police Department PBA, The South Plainfield Mayor’s Wellness Committee and The Boyle Memorial Foundation.

Although Brianna was born with profound disabilities, the pure joy and love that she has for life inspires me everyday. I am so grateful for all of the wonderful people who are coming together to support my little girl to help make getting a handicap accessible vehicle a reality!

What an Incredible Fundraiser for Brianna!

The fundraiser was amazing!  It was wonderful to have the support and encouragement of so many individuals who came out to celebrate my daughter Brianna.  I am so grateful for all that Post 248 did from the Sons of the American Legion to make the event a success!  Everyone had an amazing time!


Brianna enjoyed the excitement of the day with delicious barbecued foods, music, and lots of friends!

Bri picnic

She smiled and laughed surrounded by so much attention and love!

Kristina, Nancy  and Bri

Friends came from hours away to offer support!


New friends were made too!


Brianna and I got to relax and enjoy everybody.


Reporter Ranji Sinha came out to cover the event and Channel 12 aired a beautiful story about Brianna last night.


Tommy Dunn, who had initially brought Brianna’s story to the attention of the Sons of the American Legion and worked hard to help organize the event, was interviewed with Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac.


Head Case volunteered to perform and everyone enjoyed the music!

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Brianna swayed with the music. Her hearing was very poor as were all of her senses at birth. Repetitive stimulation has brought her far and she can hear perfectly.  I’m sure her senses were tingling as she rocked back and forth to the beat!


Bri’s brother and sister played with their friend Colt. They love their little sister and had a great time making tie dye shirts and participating in all of the fun activities that were organized for the kids!


I am so grateful to all of our friends for coming out to support Brianna!


It is wonderful to have so many amazing people in our lives!

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Grandad and Brianna’s new puppy Chloe, who will be trained as a therapy dog,  also were there and enjoyed everyone!


Chloe got worn out though with all of the excitement!


Brianna is a happy, beautiful 5-year-old who is a true blessing in my life. I am so grateful to everyone for making this day so special for my little angel!


We are So Excited for Brianna’s Fundraising Picnic Saturday August 23rd!

Brianna loves her big brother and sister.  She often responds to them with smiles and squeals of delight!  Although it can be difficult to have a sister with disabilities, the kids are learning lessons of compassion that take many a lifetime to understand!

Brianna loves her big brother and sister.  She often responds to them with smiles and squeals of delight! Although it can be difficult to have a sister with disabilities, the kids are learning lessons of compassion that take many a lifetime to understand!

I am so grateful to the American Legion Post #248 of Colonia for choosing my 5-year-old daughter Brianna to be the recipient of this year’s annual charity picnic. It’s going to be at the American Legion, 806 South Middlesex Ave in Colonia this Saturday August 23rd. They’ve planned a huge picnic with a live band, silent auction, food, games for the kids, and a horse shoe tournament!

All of the proceeds will go to benefit Brianna, who has Pallister Killian Syndrome (PKS), an extremely rare genetic disorder that leaves Brianna blind as well as profoundly disabled mentally and physically. Only 200 people in the world have been diagnosed with this devastating disorder. Please visit the “About” section of this blog to read “Brianna’s Story” and learn more about Pallister Killian Syndrome.

The fundraiser will help cover Brianna’s monthly expenses from diapers and special foods to much needed equipment and services that health insurance either will not cover or only covers a portion of. She will be able to finally have a stander, which will help her body to build strength. Because Brianna’s bone density is so low, she is more prone to broken bones as she grows and can get osteoporosis if she does not take weight through her legs and feet regularly now. The stander will prevent her from regressing and will strengthen her bones.

Saturday’s event is also making it possible for Brianna to have additional physical, cognitive, and occupational therapies. Brianna’s progress depends on constant stimulation of her senses and muscles. The genetic disorder has caused diffused brain damage and the neurons of the cells of her brain are not able to communicate without their signals being interrupted. For example, the signal from her eyes does not reach the vision center of the brain resulting in Cortical Visual Impairment. She is blind. With stimulation, however, these neurons form new pathways and it is possible for their signals to eventually reach their destination in the brain over time. For instance, Brianna was deaf at birth and I have incorporated loud noises and other sounds into her therapy over the years. Now she can hear perfectly. Her therapists and I work hard to help Brianna reach her goals and live a full, happy and healthy life.

Recent studies on PKS have found that 96% of children develop seizures by age six. As Brianna grows bigger and nears her sixth birthday, where the risk for seizures greatly increases, I will need more help to insure her continued safety. Hopefully, with the proceeds from the fundraiser and other resources that I am researching, I will be able to find someone to help me with Brianna on a daily basis.

Brianna is an incredible child with a vibrant spirit. She is pure, unconditional love and is truly making a difference in the world just by being who she is!

This incredible event is an amazing blessing and I am so thankful for all of the individuals who are working hard to make possible. It’s going to be a lot of fun! Hope to see everyone this Saturday!

This entry was posted on August 21, 2014. 2 Comments