Serving as a classroom instructional assistant at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School has helped Josh Speidel in more ways than he can count.
He had to relearn how to walk and talk after being involved in a traumatic car wreck in February 2015 that left him with a head injury and in a coma.
When he started working at the Seymour elementary school in the fall, students helped push the 6-foot-8 former Columbus North High School basketball standout around in a wheelchair. Now, he’s walking on his own.
Working with students individually and in groups, he helped them with class lessons and talked about life in general. That helped the students and teachers, and he now looks back and realizes it helped him, too.
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This was all new to Speidel because he had just graduated from high school a few months before starting this role.
Now, he’s preparing to leave Brown and head to the University of Vermont, where he will begin classes in early July and continue with physical therapy so he can participate in some basketball workouts.
He reflects on his time at Brown the same way he entered the classroom each time — with a smile.
“I’m just going to miss all of the kids and teachers, just all of their great attitudes, just everything about this school,” Speidel said.
“There will probably be times in college where I’ll sit back and think, ‘You know, I was really blessed, and I did have a really good setup in life here at Brown,’” he said. “I have a lot to be thankful for because to be honest, doctors and therapists, they didn’t know if I would be able to do this, so it’s just going through it saying, ‘Hey, I did it.’ It’s a big encouragement to me.”
Seymour Superintendent Rob Hooker and the school board approved hiring Speidel to work at the school a couple of days a week.
Speidel mainly worked with Jennifer Regruth’s fourth-grade class at Brown, and she and her students conducted a going-away party for him Monday.
Walking into the classroom in the afternoon after helping a kindergarten class, Speidel was met by Regruth’s students, who were singing and holding their hand-made signs.
Large signs reading “We love Josh” and “#VermontBound” were hung on the chalkboard, messages to him were shared on a whiteboard and in a scrapbook, a care package they assembled was opened and cookies iced in yellow and green — Vermont’s school colors — were passed around to eat.
The day was capped with Brown’s 600-plus students and staff members lining the hallways as Speidel walked by, receiving high-fives and hugs along the way.
With his mother, Lisa Speidel, being the school’s assistant principal, he said he figured he would have heard about some of the plans for the day. But he was surprised by all of the fanfare.
“They hid it really well,” he said, smiling. “That’s one of the great things about this school — if you’re doing something nice for them, they never let you leave without you knowing that they really appreciate it.”
When he wasn’t at the school, Speidel was receiving physical, occupational and speech and cognitive therapy three times a week. That initially was in Indianapolis before he later started going to Columbus.
He had taken a neuropsych/vocational test a few times. That shows his strengths and weaknesses, and based on the results, a list of accommodations could be developed to help him be successful in college, Lisa Speidel said.
“For example, to address his tremor, we will ask for a notetaker or scribe,” she said. “He is also learning to use different types of technology, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a talk-to-test type program.”
Recently passing the neuropsych/vocational test for the first time allowed Josh Speidel to head to college.
“To finally pass it, that was a blessing,” he said. “I want to thank my Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. I can even thank Regruth and her classroom for just the constant inspiration they gave me.”
Lisa Speidel said the test provided continued confirmation of her son’s healing and recovery.
“We are working with vocational rehabilitation and resource facilitation to help him transition to the college setting,” she said. “The University of Vermont has also been wonderful at helping meet his needs.”
The NCAA has granted Speidel and the university a waiver for his first year, allowing him to be a member of the team, but the school doesn’t have to use a scholarship position for him, Lisa Speidel said.
Once he goes to Vermont, Josh Speidel will continue to work with a physical therapist as needed and athletics trainers to continue his recovery.
“He had to relearn how to do everything, so he knows it takes time,” Lisa Speidel said. “It is amazing when we reflect back at how far he has come. Miracle sums it very well.”
She said she also realizes the impact Brown has made on her son.
“I think we knew that this was going to be a good thing for Joshua, but I didn’t realize how good of a thing it was,” she said. “It has helped him so much along his journey for his recovery. But then to see the positive impact that he has had on Brown Elementary, and then just for the positive impact that I think Brown’s had on him, it has just been amazing.”
Regruth said Speidel became the perfect fit with her classroom.
“He just did whatever I handed him, which was so nice,” Regruth said. “We just together made it up as we went along and both just got so much out of it. I don’t know how I got that lucky, but the kids in here and anybody in this building will never be the same just because of that.”
Regruth said it was special seeing the students helping Josh Speidel once he arrived at the school, and then along the way, he was able to help them.
“I think he just felt that support, and that just got him going,” Regruth said. “Then he would think up things and ask me things he could do with them. Eventually, he just took that on, and he would see things that he could do. There was a little crowd he had that always wanted to work at his table, and I think that made him feel great, like he’s doing something to help.”
Josh Speidel’s positive demeanor also was welcoming at the school. Regruth said he always walked into her classroom with a contagious smile.
“He’s got such a sunny disposition and outlook, you can’t help but feel good when you are around him,” she said. “He’s a little jokester, too. He liked to play tricks.”
That upbeat attitude rubbed off on the students.
“Every time he smiled, everybody would have a smile on their face. They would be so happy, and they would clap for him, and that smile would grow bigger,” said Keila Perez, a fourth-grader in Regruth’s class.
“Every time he smiles in the class, he’s so happy. He makes everybody else happy, and then everyone else has a great day,” classmate Xavier Venegas said.
Josh Speidel said his positivity stems from his father, David Speidel.
“He has always taught me, ‘Wherever you go, smile. No matter what people are going through, they can always use a smile,’” he said. “I thank Dad for that a lot. It’s hard not to smile when you walk into a classroom like this and see Mrs. Regruth and see all of these kids.”
When it came to classroom work, Keila said Josh Speidel helped her most with math facts.
“I really didn’t know my division facts, and Mrs. Regruth would always say, ‘Who wants to go work with Mr. Josh?’” she said. “I would always raise my hand because I really needed help, and he showed us how to do it. He was inspiring.”
Josh Speidel helped Xavier with reading and comprehension to where he’s now earning better grades. Xavier said Josh also helped him persevere through football.
Josh Speidel said he liked helping the students and seeing them progress.
“I didn’t realize how much I would like it,” he said. “My mom was a teacher, but I never had this kind of connection with a class. To see Mrs. Regruth teach, to see her joy she has with it, just seeing the joy I got out of it, I just really fell in love with it.”
As he heads to college, Josh Speidel said, he wants to either become a teacher or a physical therapist.
“My sister actually just became a licensed physical therapist, so that has really inspired me to become like that,” he said. “My eyes have been opened to a lot of possibilities.”
Along with starting classes this summer, Josh Speidel said, he is ready to be around his basketball teammates.
“They are happy I’m coming. They are ready to get down to it, down to business,” he said. “Seeing all of the support from Vermont that has come my way, I think it just makes me and my parents sit back and say, ‘Wow! I did pick a really good place and college to go to.’”
Going to college and playing basketball has been a lifelong dream, and he hopes to be back on the court someday.
“There was a long time when this didn’t even look possible for me,” he said. “When I sit back and think about just all I personally have heard and have been through, I just know that it will give me a bunch of support and inspiration.”
Regruth said she wouldn’t be surprised to see him playing basketball again.
“I don’t have any doubt that if he has basketball on his mind, at some point, he’s going to drive until he gets there,” she said. “He would like it to be faster if he got to pick, but he’s willing to take it on. He still has to do what he has to do, and he knows it.”
Lisa Speidel said she’s thankful her son gets the opportunity to pursue his lifelong dream, which has remained alive because of support along the way.
“Any time we can say ‘thank-you’ to people and any time that we can say, ‘Don’t give up,’ that’s the message we want to get out there,” she said. “Sometimes, you have to dig real deep, and sometimes, you need people running along beside you saying, ‘You can do it.’ That’s what we want to do.”
Having Brown Elementary be a part of the support system was great, Lisa Speidel said.
“We’ve said all along that God puts people in our path,” she said. “Every one of these students crossed Josh’s path for a reason, and we think that it’s to help him, but for him to help them along also. I continue to be so thankful for Seymour Community Schools and Mr. Hooker for providing Josh with this opportunity. They ran right along this marathon with us.”