Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

January 9, 2014

Finding wonder, happiness within a joyful group of children

Elizabeth Bernardin
The Andover Townsman

---- — Editor’s Note: Andover High School sophomore Elizabeth Bernardin has been volunteering at the Professional Center for Child Development in Andover for more than a year. The sister of a younger brother who is on the autism spectrum and who attended the center, she says she has found the opportunity eye-opening and gratifying on a variety of levels. She shares her experience in this piece.

---

The summer before high school, I began searching for an organization I could contribute to. I wanted to apply myself outside of school in a setting where I could help and hopefully make an impact. I went to a few different groups before I decided on the Professional Center for Child Development in Andover. The biggest factor in this decision was the fact that my younger brother, William, had attended there. I knew he had benefited, so I wanted to give back to the people who had helped him.

William is on the autism spectrum. I’ve seen how hard he works every day to accomplish the things that come naturally to the rest of us. Whether it was basic things such as making eye contact when being spoken to or eating with a spoon, or more advanced skills such as communicating and interacting with others, William has always had to work extremely hard. It’s been a trying, exciting and rewarding journey as an older sister.

Being someone who lives in a home where autism is such a prominent topic, I felt I could bring some valuable knowledge to the job. And, honestly, it did help a lot, because there were times when a child would do something that strongly resembled William’s behavior. There were many things, however, that I wasn’t prepared for, because each child is unique. I wasn’t prepared for how gratifying this experience would be or for the contagious happiness of the children.

You forget what it’s like to be a child with the ability to find joy in everyday things — whether it’s blowing bubbles or drawing with chalk. Having the privilege of interacting with these children instilled in me a newfound sense of wonder and happiness. It made me see the world a little differently and take time to appreciate what I have. Some of the children I worked with faced greater challenges than William, but they were bright and energetic and put their all in everything they did. I knew I had found the right place to volunteer.

My first event at the PCCD was the Trot for Special Tots. Since then, I’ve also been able to volunteer at holiday parties as well as in a summer classroom. Volunteering was initially a little nerve-racking, but the strong sense of community within the PCCD walls helped me acclimate. I had the opportunity to not only work with amazing children, but also with a dedicated staff who made my experience so worthwhile. They showed me what I needed to do in order to be successful and opened my eyes to all the good the PCCD does for so many families.

I feel honored to have the privilege of volunteering at the Professional Center for Child Development. Being able to work with the children and interact with them on a personal level is an unbelievably rewarding experience. I am grateful to Ellen Waddill and everyone else at PCCD for this amazing volunteer opportunity, and I look forward to continuing my work with the fantastic staff and children at PCCD.

Elizabeth Bernardin is a sophomore at Andover High School.