In classrooms all over America, teachers begin the school day with a routine. A “good morning,” a quick rundown of the class roster, a collection of yesterday’s homework and, for younger grades, maybe a fun, interactive song to start the day.
For Chris Ulmer’s special-needs class, the first 10 minutes of each day begin a bit differently.
“You, sir, are an amazing student,” exclaimed “Mr. Chris” to one of his special-needs students as they began the school day one particular morning. “You’re very funny, you’re very smart, you do a great job every day, and you make everyone laugh because you are so silly. Thanks for being a great student,” he finished, as he high-fived the young boy and sent him to his seat.
Ulmer repeated the action as he did each morning with every student in his class, encouraging, affirming and loving them. Each student walked back to his seat with a smile as big as Texas and, no doubt, much-needed courage to face the challenges of the day.
Ulmer, 27, began his college education at Penn State University, where he earned a BA with a specialty in media effects. He received a full scholarship to University of the Cumberlands, where he coached the men’s soccer team and earned a master’s degree in teaching with a specialty in special education. A self-described “beach bum” in his off time, Ulmer says he doesn’t exactly fit the traditional teacher mold, which works to his advantage and — he believes — has contributed to his success.
Not long after Ulmer began teaching at Mainstream Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, he recognized a significant disconnect between his students and the rest of society, and it concerned him. He began to fear that the isolation so many individuals within the special-needs community experience would limit his students and prevent them from reaching the potential he knows they possess. In early 2015, he decided to do something about it. Armed with little more than a broken camera phone and a computer in great need of repair, he launched “Special Books for Special Kids,” (SBSK) a project designed to give a voice to special needs individuals of all ages, races, diagnoses and social classes.
SBSK is now officially a 501c3 nonprofit organization, but it was first started as a potential book series. Although that part of the project is ongoing (stay tuned), Ulmer didn’t let the 50 rejection letters he received from publishers stop him. He joined Facebook and YouTube, started blogging and posting videos of interviews with his students and others within the special-needs community, giving the world just a tiny glimpse into the minds of some pretty incredible people.
Interest in Ulmer’s work skyrocketed in November, after the video of him complimenting his students one morning went viral. Since then, SBSK has expanded its reach to more than 85 countries, has grown to nearly 500,000 followers on Facebook and routinely attracts more than 1 million views of its videos.
Katherine, one young lady SBSK recently interviewed, expressed her great desire to be independent. She told “Mr. Chris” about her dream of one day getting a job and beginning to save for a home of her own, but because of a neurological disorder called speech apraxia, she feared she’d never have that opportunity. After meeting her and finding out where she’d like to work, Ulmer contacted the owner of the company, and explained how her disorder would in no way would limit her from doing the job expected of her. A couple of months later, Katherine reported that she had overcome her “self-doubt” and landed the job she wanted so badly.
A man named Joe recently told his story to the SBSK family. Now an older adult, Joe lived a life of great adversity, struggling all the way through his school years, and finding it nearly impossible to hold down a job once he entered the workforce. Doctors had previously diagnosed him as schizophrenic and bipolar. At 46, Joe was given a brain scan for something completely unrelated to his former diagnosis, and doctors discovered he was missing a large portion of his brain called the corpus callosum — the part of the brain that allows for communication between the left and right hemispheres. During the interview, Ulmer gives Joe the opportunity to tell his story, talk about the hardships he has experienced in his life, the relief he felt when he finally had a true diagnosis, and even gives him the opportunity to reach out via social media and meet new friends within the SBSK community.
Watching the students’ stories and seeing Ulmer interact with each of them certainly goes a long way in achieving the goal he set out to accomplish when he founded SBSK a year ago.
“It is extremely rewarding to get to do this work and to meet these incredible individuals and their families,” Ulmer told Opportunity Lives. “We look forward to the continued evolution of SBSK as a non-profit.”
Ulmer left the classroom at the end of the school year to take on the responsibilities of SBSK full time. He’s joined by Alyssa Porter, who serves as the nonprofit’s executive director. The two began a road trip earlier this week that will give them the opportunity to travel through Florida, their home state, before heading up the Eastern Seaboard and into Canada, meeting and interviewing lots of friends within the special-needs community.
Later this year, Ulmer and Porter will tour Australia in the hope that their work will continue to expend worldwide, giving them more opportunities to meet and interact with the people they serve so passionately.
“It is our mission to lead a global acceptance movement,” Ulmer said of his team, “and with the support of the SBSK family, we truly believe we can change the world. Together, we will normalize the diversity of the human condition.”
This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on June 20, 2016.