Teenager recalls positive lessons learned in kindergarten classroom

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RED BANK – Retired special education teacher Laraine Gaunt of Red Bank has devoted her life to teaching children to show respect and empathy – and a former student is thanking her for doing so.

Chloe Hoban, 16, of Middletown, smiled as she sat in the Lambs & Wolves hair salon, Red Bank, and flipped through a scrapbook containing news stories.

The scrapbook held a photograph of Chloe as a 5-year-old kindergarten pupil at the Tower Hill School, Red Bank. In the picture, Chloe was pushing her childhood friend in a wheelchair.

The photo was taken during one of Gaunt’s “It’s OK to be Different” classroom lessons – a comprehensive education program she created that teaches kindness and empathy to students in preschool through middle school.

Celebrating 40 years of inclusion in public schools, the program that includes six units that seek to foster an understanding of individual disabilities, respect for differences and an appreciation of diversity was praised during an anniversary celebration on Feb. 16 at the Red Bank salon.

“I still remember everything,” Chloe said, noting that guest speakers, each of whom had a disability, visited and spoke to her kindergarten class. The speakers exposed the children to their lifestyles that were different from other people, she said.

“We would listen to them speak about their lives and how (their disabilities) impacted them. We learned that everyone should be kind to one another and respect one another because everyone is different,” said Chloe, who attends Middletown High School South.

Chloe recalled wearing a mask that impeded her vision and using a cane to walk – an exercise the pupils participated in after they were introduced to a visually impaired individual.

The exercise taught the youngsters how a person who has a visual impairment may view and interact with the world.

“Empathy can have a domino effect for positive change,” Chloe said. “Through this program, I learned how to be kind to people and respect people who are not like the majority. This program has impacted me since then. Even at a young age, I was blown away by this program … I never looked at the world in that way.”

Chloe said the “kindness” program she was introduced to as a child continues to influence her actions toward others more than a decade after she learned the basics of empathy and respect.

“This program is so beneficial to kids,” the young woman said. “I don’t think I would be the person I am today (if I had not) had this program.”

Earning scholastic recognition for her award-winning essay about Gaunt and the kindness program, Chloe read her submission to Gaunt and the other guests that evening.

Gaunt said, “Some people ask, ‘How do you know your program is working? Well, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Chloe Hoban.’ ”

Sean Cuddihy, a Middletown resident and sophomore at Emerson College, premiered a documentary about the history and impact of the “It’s OK to be Different” initiative.

In the documentary that featured comments from individuals with disabilities, public officials and Gaunt, the retired teacher explained that her passion for spreading empathy originated in high school and flourished throughout adulthood.