Working with him since the beginning of the school year, Sara Welden is amazed by the progress Joshua Johnson has made.
The Brownstown Central High School sophomore used to need assistance while completing activities in class. Now, he independently selects them. For example, he once had to have prompts to complete 12-piece puzzles, but today, he’s completing nearly 50-piece puzzles all by himself.
Johnson also used to struggle with his behavior. He now gets along so well with others that he participates in group activities and walks around the school and eats lunch in the cafeteria with his peers.
Above all, Johnson’s character shines the brightest.
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At the All Schools Special Track and Field Meet earlier this month at Bedford North Lawrence High School, he was chosen for an award among the 300-plus athletes from seven area school corporations involved in Joint Services.
He received the Special Education Director’s Award for Exceptional Character. He got his own plaque to keep, and a traveling plaque will remain on display in Deb Schwartz’s classroom at the school until next year’s meet.
The award has been presented at the annual meet since 1990, and Johnson is the first Brownstown student to earn it.
“He’s really caring, and he really does have a big heart,” Welden said. “He shows a lot of empathy, like if someone else is in trouble or something, it makes Josh upset and sad, and he wants to be involved with other people. He’s so nice.”
There are a couple of student helpers who come into the classroom, and Welden said Johnson “lights up” when he sees them and gives them a big hug.
“He’s just a big teddy bear,” Welden said. “He’s sweet, and just with his improvement and his attitude about being here, when I started, he was here three days a week, but we added on a whole extra day in October.”
When she heard about Johnson receiving the award, Welden said she cried.
“I was tearing up because it has been a hard year for Josh and I,” she said. “His last aide who worked with him worked with him for a few years, so it was totally new territory. I only met Josh at the end of July, and immediately, I was thrown into a relationship.”
It didn’t take long for them to develop a great working relationship and for Welden to see improvement in Johnson.
“Looking at the progress he has made, it’s so crazy what he can do now compared to what he did when I started,” she said. “Now, he can sit there and he just keeps working, and he’ll go and get his stuff. He has a routine to get stuff out in the morning, and then he actually seems to enjoy what he’s doing, and just interacting with people is so much different.”
Welden follows program protocols, including various tasks and life skills, to help Johnson be as independent as possible. That ranges from going to the restroom, showering, brushing his teeth by himself to interacting with others to playing games, doing puzzles and working on comprehension.
“I’m not going to push him to the point of breaking, but he needs to be pushed a little bit harder every single day just because that’s how you grow,” Welden said. “Just because Josh has autism doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to be pushed a little bit like we do with all of the other students.”
They work together from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. four days a week.
“He gets off for lunch, and that’s about it. He works the rest of the day right now,” Welden said. “At the beginning of school, he had a really bad behavior. He actually can’t come to school now without me because of that behavior, but we’ve really noticed a decrease in his aggression. He’s putting up with a lot, he’s wanting to work and he wants to do stuff. He wants to please you.”
Rob and Stephanie Johnson are proud of the progress their son has made. The award was a bonus.
“We have been blessed with phenomenal therapists over the years who have worked with Josh,” Stephanie said. “He has made incredible strides. My husband and I are very proud of him and the progress he has made and continues to make. When Josh received this award, we both cried. He is an amazing kid. Rob and I continually have high school kids telling us how much they love working with Josh. We are blessed.”
At the two-day track and field meet, athletes from Brownstown Central, Medora, Eastern Greene, Mitchell, North Lawrence, Orleans and Shoals competed in various events.
The first day consisted of individual running events and relays in the morning and Wiffle ball toss, soft Frisbee toss and standing long jump in the afternoon.
On the second day, there were final race events, music and dancing and an awards presentation.
Competitors included students in kindergarten through 12th grade, graduates and group home residents. General education students from each school assisted the competitors as needed and volunteered at various stations at the event.
Johnson was one of 10 Brownstown Central High School students competing. Tyler Wheeler, Caleb Trimble, Dylan Bridges and Indy Hardin teamed up to win a relay, while Hardin also won the 100-meter dash.
Schwartz said the team’s motto was “Why fit in when you were born to stand out.” She thanked Tri Kappa sorority in Brownstown for donating snacks, drinks and fresh fruit for the athletes.
Brownstown Central Middle School had five participants. One of them, Conner Sears, led the oath at the meet since he won the Bradley and Kenny Simpson Memorial Mental Attitude Award at the 2017 event.
Twelve students from Brownstown Elementary School competed. Lindsey Goshorn, a special needs teacher at the school, received the Shawn McCollum Award for Excellence in Special Education.
She received an email from the Joint Services special education director letter her know she was chosen.
“I felt very appreciative to have my work recognized,” said Goshorn, who is wrapping up her 13th year of teaching. “I have always been passionate about my work with students and would continue to do everything I can for them even without any acknowledgment. It is definitely a confidence boost to feel like what I am doing is being noticed and gives me motivation to continue doing bigger and better things in my classroom.”
Goshorn said it takes a lot of people to help her successfully do her job.
“I wish I could break apart this award and share it with everyone that supports me on a daily basis,” she said. “I have amazing instructional assistants that I could not live without, supportive and hardworking administration, wonderful colleagues and most importantly, all of my students over the years that have taught me as much about life as I hope I have taught them.”
Cathy Clouse, a special education teacher at Medora, also received the Shawn McCollum Award for Excellence in Special Education.
She has been teaching for 40 years — 10 at Head Start, one year in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, and 29 at Medora. She currently works with special education students in grades 7 through 12 and teaches junior high science.
“I was surprised and delighted by the award,” Clouse said. “I enjoy my students and their different personalities. I work to develop a student/teacher relationship, which helps me instruct them in life skills. We want the students to have a great work experience and adult life after they graduate.”
Medora’s participants included nine elementary and two junior high students and one graduate. Earning first-place trophies were third-grader Zach Day for elementary standing long jump and seventh-grader Matthew Inscoe for junior-senior high ball throw.