March 14, 2012 - Even as a high school student, it was quite clear that Jeanne DiCicco was destined to enhance the lives of young people with disabilities.
LOFT teacher Jeanne DiCicco (center) poses with students R.J. Kanan (left) and Travis Francis. (click for larger version)
"I was always drawn to the special needs classroom," she said. "I always wanted to go in and help. I always wanted to be with those kids that needed extra assistance."
What started out as a natural inclination to help others blossomed into a 23-year teaching career in special education that's culminated with a very prestigious award.
DiCicco was named the Leonard Cercone Post-Secondary Teacher of the Year as part of the 2012 Dove Awards.
The awards are presented by The Arc of Oakland County, a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights and full participation of all children and adults with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.
"To get this award at this point in my life is a blessing," DiCicco said. "I have to admit I was speechless when I got the e-mail."
DiCicco coordinates and teaches the LOFT Program at Oxford High School. LOFT stands for Learning Opportunities for Tomorrow and it serves 18-to-26-year-old students with developmental disabilities or cognitive impairment.
Founded by DiCicco three years ago, LOFT focuses on preparing young men and women to lead productive, fulfilling and independent adult lives by teaching them a variety of useful skills.
"At first, when I found out about the award, I was like I don't need a pat on the back. I do what I do because I love what I do," she said. "But then it sunk in, this is recognition for the program and all the people who support it. I couldn't be who I am if it weren't for my staff and if it weren't for my students and if it weren't for the love that I receive on a daily basis from these kids."
DiCicco was particularly grateful to her paraprofessional, Kathy Stull, for nominating her and for matching her level of dedication to the program.
"Kathy's there with me all the time," she said. "I never stop and she puts in just as much time as I do. Whatever we can do for these kids to help them grow and make their daily lives better, we do."
Even though she has a degree in administrative leadership and has worked as an administrator, DiCicco prefers to be in the classroom, interacting directly with students.
"For me, it's all about being with the kids," she explained. "It's about being part of this whole dynamic group. I see the growth of these kids every day, every minute, every second. That makes it all worth it. It's not about the money. This is my calling. This is where I'm supposed to be.
"I love to lead, don't get me wrong. But I think I lead everyday in what I do."
In addition to establishing and running the LOFT program, DiCicco also brought the Special Olympics to Oxford, forming teams for basketball, soccer, bowling, swimming, and track and field.
"I'm hoping to expand it even more," she said. "Being athletically-driven is very important to keeping children well-rounded whether they have a disability or not."
DiCicco requires all of her LOFT students to participate in Special Olympics sports because it helps develop "positive social skills" and "build self-esteem," which in turn, "helps with every other aspect of their lives."
"I told them they're going to exercise and play sports. They're not going to sit at home and eat bonbons all day."
One of the things that drew DiCicco to special education was her desire to see students with disabilities exceed their perceived limitations and fulfill their dreams.
When she was in high school, a boy she was dating had a brother with cerebral palsy. The brother always talked about all the things he wanted to do in life like having a full-time job.
"I used to tell him – and I would tell myself – that someday I'm going to make a difference in a disabled child's life and help them live the exact same kind of life as everyone else," she said.
Year after year, student after student, DiCicco's fulfilled that promise in places like Algonac, Romeo, Troy and now, Oxford.
"I've had students who nobody ever thought would lead independent lives prove everybody wrong," she said. "Everything's possible. If there's a will, there's a way.
"Never ever, ever say never because everybody can do whatever they want and achieve whatever goal they want, no matter who they are or whatever disability they may have."
For instance, back when DiCicco was a new teacher involved with elementary-age kids, she worked "extremely hard" with an autistic student who completely lacked social skills and could not comprehend anything he read.
Years later, she encountered this same student again at the high school level. He was "well-liked" by his peers and taking general education classes.
This student eventually fulfilled his dream of owning a DJ business, which today provides music for student events in the Romeo school district.
"He did both of my daughters' graduation parties," DiCicco noted. "Here's a child who could not even have a conversation, now communicating daily and effectively.
"I guess he's my biggest success story because he has come so far."
DiCicco explained that she chose to go into special education as opposed to general education because at the time, the latter was taking a "cookie-cutter" approach.
"Every child was being taught the same way," she said. "I watched some of my own friends struggle because their learning styles were so different than others."
Special education afforded her the opportunity "to prove that kids can learn at their own ability level through individualized attention."
"We're all the same, we just learn a little differently," she said.
One would think after 23 years in the same profession, DiCicco wouldn't be as enthusiastic, energetic or optimistic as she is about her work. But fortunately, her passion has never diminished. In fact, it continues to grow and grow.
"It's important to me to be able to make a difference in somebody's life every single day," she said. "I know I've touched a million lives and my goal before I die, or retire, is to touch a million more."
She's particularly grateful to the Oxford school district for giving her the chance to start a program from the ground up.
"I didn't have to follow in anybody's footsteps," DiCicco said. "I can do what's best for this district and my students."
"I have watched my students grow into a community and watched the community embrace my students," she continued. "I finally feel like I can call this place of Oxford my home."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.