Born to Serve Children

By Brad McEwen

It didn’t take long—a few minutes or so—during my recent hour and half sit down with Lee County native and elementary school special education teacher Brittny Dennison to get the gist of why multiple people had suggested I feature her in a Beyond the Bank piece.

We had barely gotten past the formalities—“nice to meet you; I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me”—before Brittny showed the engaging and caring personality that impresses so many people and has garnered her recognition throughout the community.

Flashing a radiant smile—which was present throughout our chat, even when the subject got emotional—Brittny wasted no time frankly explaining her passion for children and the reasons she’s devoted her herself to teaching special needs children and becoming a foster parent, despite only being in her mid-20s.

“I cannot teach regular ed children,” the 26 year-old, fifth-year educator told me matter-of-factly when I asked about her role at Lee County Primary School and the affinity she’s had for children with disabilities since childhood. “That’s just not for me. People seem to think that because you teach special ed, you're special, but I just believe God made us all different.”

Even with her belief that God made everyone different, her connection to her students is very personal.

“My dad had a severely handicapped sister, so I was born being comfortable and talking to somebody who couldn’t talk back to me,” she said. “Kids like that never made me uncomfortable. I was drawn to those types of children. So for as long as I can remember I’ve known that I wanted to teach special education. There wasn’t an ‘oh, this is what I want to do.’ That’s just all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Because of that clear conviction, Brittny has developed an impressive skill set to go along with her natural inclination and currently serves students—ranging in age from roughly 5 to 9—who have varying disabilities.

“Most of mine, when they come to me, they’re all labeled, I guess, ‘significantly, developmentally delayed,’ which is kind of just a generic (term),” Brittny explained. “We don’t want to put a mild, moderate, severe profound label on them yet, so that’s kind of a big umbrella they can fall under until they’re 9. Before they turn 9 years-old we have to then decide if they are functioning profound, severe, mild or moderate.

“Most of mine they’re average MO, they’re moderate kids. I have down syndrome, I have some autism. Some are just Cerebral Palsy. I have some kids that can't go anywhere in this building without an adult.”

While there are those that need constant supervision, Brittny said some of the children she serves are able to go to other classrooms and participate in different activities—such as PE, recess, lunch, art and music—with the general student population, which is an objective she has for all her students.

“My goal is for my students to not need me as much as possible; the more they can be in this building without me, the more independent they’re becoming,” she said. “I’ve got some that can’t go to the bathroom by themselves; you’ve got to keep an eye on them or they’ll be gone. But most of mine, by the time they’re third, fourth year here, are able to do some independent stuff.”

For all of her hard work and determination, Brittny was exceedingly humble and was quick to point out that the success she’s seen comes from a full team effort. She had great praise for the commitment of her assigned paraprofessional, her fellow teachers and the Lee County School System as a whole.

“We do have a good system; all of our teachers are great,” Brittny said. “I’ll say what makes our special ed program as good as it is, is probably because of the gen ed teachers. We do have teachers that go above and beyond.”

The notion of going above and beyond was a common theme throughout my discussion with Brittny, whose quest to take care of special needs children extends well outside the classroom.

“I can fix a lot here in this building, but if they go home and they aren’t doing it there or they’re not doing it in public, I’ve done nothing,” she said. “They’re not going to be in school forever. Eventually they’re going to need to get a job or get out in public and do different things, so that’s a big part of my job—to transition it from school to home.”

One of the ways she’s able to do that is by building strong relationships, not just with the students, but with their families—many of which struggle raising a special needs child. And several of those relationships, Brittny said, last long after those children have left her class.

“It’s hard to let them go after four years,” she said. “I spend more time with my children in my room than I do with my own child. But that also makes it easier to have a personal relationship with these parents. A lot of my parents of kids that have left still call me, or talk to me, or text me and ask me stuff. We become friends.

“And a lot of times I do things with my students outside of school. Most of them have spent the night. I babysit for them just because there’s few people that can handle children like that and there’s few people that the parents can trust and I don’t blame them for that.

“But I like doing that because I can take them to my house and I’m like, ‘look, they did this at my house. It wasn’t at school, it was at my house. So, if they can do it at my house, they can do it at your house.”

It was refreshing to listen to Brittny talk about how she treats the children in her class and it became obvious to me that much of her ability to connect with them and assist them comes from the fact that she doesn’t coddle the children and always sets high expectations for their behavior.

“I have to tell people in this building as well, ‘yes they're special, they need modifications and accommodations, but there's certain things that are expected of them regardless,’ Brittny said. “In the real world you can't go up and grab people and touch on people; there's still rules they have to follow.

“A lot of people, they don't mind (getting on to) a child in general ed but they don't want to be ugly to my students or to children like that. Most of them don't realize how much those kids actually comprehend. They're much smarter than what most people give them credit for.

“I’ve got kids in my room who literally fought for their lives for years, so I get it, if that was my kid I would give them everything they wanted. So I can see how easy it is to spoil them rotten, and spoiling them is fine, but they still need to behave.”

By holding those children accountable and treating them like she would treat any children, Brittny feels like she’s better preparing them for the ultimate goal of having success outside the classroom and being independent.

And while much of her dedication is born out of a desire to see them have success, Brittny is also quite frank about simply loving special needs children because of who they are and the way they view the world in general.

“They’re generally happy people, regardless of what’s going on, regardless of their circumstances or the difficulties they face every day,” she said. “They’re happier than anybody else in this building.

“They love you for who you are and nothing is going to change that. And they just do what they want to do and it’s hard to bring them down. I mean, they’re just happy. I have a happy group of kids.”

Listening to her expound on her special “friends” there was just no denying that Brittny adores her students, but as our conversation progressed I found she was equally passionate about another impressive aspect of her life.

Even though she’s always wanted to work with special needs children, it’s clear Brittny’s heart is drawn to all children, especially those facing adversity in their lives.

That’s why, in her early 20s—when most people are still focused squarely on themselves—she embarked on a personal journey to fill yet another need in the lives of young people.

Brittny said that not long after getting to know Steve and Ginger Karrick and their children, she started to explore the possibility of becoming a foster parent.

“When I first started the process of becoming a foster parent I was 24,” Brittny said. “I’ve always loved children, but I’d never given much thought to orphans or children in foster care.

“(The Karricks) have adopted, I guess, around seven children from China—every single one of them with special needs. I met their first adopted child when I was student teaching and fell in love.”

After talking with the Karricks about their experiences as foster parents, and then taking a fortuitous trip to China herself, Brittny said she came to the realization that she needed to become a foster mom and try to make a difference.

“I became really close with the Karricks and I would babysit and watch all their kids and when I was 24 I called DFACS (Department of Family and Children’s Services) and was like, ‘can I go ahead and start the process?’

“DFACS is not very fast and I knew it would be a lengthy thing to become certified or whatever. I started in August and I was certified in February.”

After consulting with her then boyfriend, now fiancé Ben, Brittny said she initially committed to being available for respite care, but God ultimately intervened and that plan changed—forever altering the course of her life.

“Most foster parents don’t have people around them, don’t have families and stuff that can babysit and back then the rules for babysitters in foster care were a lot different,” Brittny explained. “So the intention was short-term, emergency placements. I filled out my little paperwork that said ‘nobody older than 7,’ but DFACS does not care what you have on your paperwork. They’re calling because they’re desperate. It doesn’t matter. I’ve had calls about 18 year-olds. They’ll call you about anything.

“We had a sibling group come stay four or five days, then I had one other girl come stay until she was put into another home, and then I got the call about Cole. I’d been really good about telling people, ‘I’m not ready for a permanent placement. My boyfriend and I are still figuring stuff out.’ But there was something about it, I don’t know. I just told the lady, ‘let me talk to my boyfriend and see how he feels about it because this will be a lot of time taken away from him.’”

Knowing that if left entirely up to her she would have a “house full” of children, Brittny gave Ben time to think it over and share his feelings and then the couple ultimately decided long-term placement for Cole was the right decision for them.

It’s been two years since a 9 year-old Cole first came to live with Brittny and during that time she and Ben—as well as Brittny’s entire family—have grown quite attached to the boy. So much so that she is now in the process of trying to adopt Cole, who she already considers her son.

“There is no going back,” she said of that decision. “We’re not quite there, but it’s as set in stone as it can be without certain paperwork. It’s just a matter of waiting on DFACS and the courts and that takes time.”

Even though Brittny has made the decision to adopt Cole and devote so much of herself to him, she said it hasn’t diminished her desire to continue fostering other children, as she believes she can provide the thing that is most important for children in those situations.

“I’m going to love any child that comes into my home like they’re my biological child,” Brittny said as she fought back some tears. “I’m going to love them and treat them like they are family and not all foster homes do that.”

As we talked through her mission as a foster parent it was touching and often emotional to hear her explain what it’s like to take in a child, often one that has never known what it is like to have a permanent home or a relationship with a parent.

Brittny told me about children she’s fostered that immediately started calling her mama, as they did in countless other homes, just out of a need to connect to a mother. She told me about one child that came to stay for a few days one Christmas that screamed through the night.

“He'd wake up screaming and it wasn't a night terror because he kind of knew what was going on, but he would be mad and he would be hitting me and it was pitiful,” she said, still smiling through some tears. “I ended up lying down with him and every 30, 45 minutes he’d wake up screaming. I could just reach over and touch him and he’d lay back down. I don’t know if it was the fear of being alone, or what he had been through. You just don’t know all they’ve been through.

“A lot of people think that we're crazy for continuing to do it, but as bad as it hurt me, I was so glad to have had him for those five days because I guarantee he was loved that Christmas.”

Knowing there is such a need for people to foster the growing number of children without stable homes, keeps Brittny motivated to continue bringing children into her home, even though she has taken on great responsibility in seeking to adopt Cole.

While she will continue to foster, Brittny said she would most likely stick with the short-term, respite placements until Cole’s adoption goes through. Of course, she also admits that she is proof that God can change plans.

“We’re going to wait until Cole’s adoption is final before we do another long-term (situation),” Brittny said before quickly altering that assertion. “Well I say that. I said I wasn’t going to do it last time, so you never know. You can make all the plans you want to in foster care, but more than likely anybody you talk to, they’ve got a child they never thought they would have.”

Brittny said whatever comes to pass will likely be fine with Cole, who she said enjoys having other children come stay with them from time to time. And even though seeing foster children interact tugs at her heart strings, it only strengthens her resolve.

“Cole likes the respite,” she said. “And some of the conversations they have, it will make you choke up to hear two foster children get together and their first, go-to conversation is ‘how many homes have you lived in?’ Or, ‘How many kids were in your last home?’ Or “Do you get to see your mama?’ That’s their go-to.”

To see children interact like that and to learn more about what foster children go through is one of the things that keeps Brittny committed to that type of service.

“(Being a foster parent), I would say is totally different (than what I expected),” said Brittny. “You can hear and read about all kinds of stuff that foster children go through, but until you lay your eyes on one and have a relationship with one, it’s a different feeling.

“To learn some of the stories that these kids have been through, and some of the stuff they talk about—it’s like normal conversation to them, I mean stuff that no 5, 6, 7 year-old should talk about.”

Brittny admits that while being a foster mother can sometimes be difficult, she knows she need to continue serving those children as passionately as she does the special needs children in her school.

“You can find me in bed crying for days after somebody leaves us,” she said. “It’s just part of the routine. That’s why some people don’t foster, because they’re scared the kids will have to leave you and most of them do have to leave.

“You just have to make the choice to love them more than you love yourself. And that’s hard. It is. But like I said, I was born to be around kids. That’s what I believe God put me on Earth to do. That’s what I’m best at.”

Having gotten a chance to meet her and spend time learning about her conviction for children in need, I see the truth in that statement. In Brittny Dennison God has found a true servant and the reputation she’s earned is well deserved.

Her passion for service and her deep love of all children is powerful and I left our meeting feeling privileged that I got to meet her and tell a little bit of her story.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen