Buckman a role model for students

Published 8:59 pm Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Volunteer Nina Buckman helps kindergartner Jackie Smith trace shapes in Janet Courson’s class at Bath Elementary School. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

The third time she asked “Are there any more questions I can answer for you?”— eyes earnest and hands clasped at her waist — something became abundantly clear: Nina Buckman loves to help the people around her.

Every Wednesday the help she lends others takes a very specific form in Janet Courson’s class at Bath Elementary School. Buckman volunteers her time with the class made up of children with learning disabilities, helping these young minds learn and grow in a Montessori-like environment. What she does is concrete and visual — using the Smartboard to help her charges assign meaning to pictures, and, in turn, pictures to words. She excels in her work with these children, because she can relate. Nina Buckman has “been there, done that.”

Buckman has Down’s Syndrome, but the genetic disability in no way prevents her from helping others, especially children with issues similar to those she’s overcome in her 32 years.

“I have the heart to help, because I care about people,” said Buckman. “I care about their needs.”

That caring is evident in the nurturing, yet no-nonsense, approach she takes in the classroom when she shows, rather than tells, a child how to accomplish a given task.

“As an adult, she sees herself as a real advocate for children with disabilities,” said Pam Hodges, principal of Bath Elementary School. “She helps other students see that just because you have a disability, doesn’t mean you can’t grow up to really contribute to society.”

Buckman’s contributions are not limited to Courson’s classroom: she also volunteers at Eagles Wings Food Pantry and has two part-time jobs, one at the Beaufort County Developmental Center, and the other at Stitchworks, a Buckman family business.

What she’d really like to do, however, is teach her students the life skills she’s learned: “I want to teach them to tie their shoes. How to make decisions, like picking out the right clothes for the weather outside.”

Buckman spoke about the importance of learning how to tell time and count money, how to teach children with disabilities about safety and looking both ways before crossing a road. She would like to teach them about healthy food and maybe how to cook.

“My parents taught me how to be independent,” Buckman explained.

In addition to her employment and volunteer work, independence and a passion for her cause have helped Buckman educate others about people with disabilities.

“We went over to the ECU School of Nursing,” said Sandra Buckman, Nina Buckman’s mother. “She gave a presentation to the entire nursing department. It was a couple hundred students.”

There, Nina Buckman told her audience about how hard it had been for her in school, of being made fun of by other students. She spoke about how she had learned to read and helped them understand how doing so had opened a door for her, and would for others.

Before she made the jump to reading, however, Nina Buckman first had to learn to talk. According to Sandra Buckman, Nina was nonverbal until age three, when the Buckmans took her to the Institute for Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, Pa. Nina Buckman was evaluated at the institute where children with brain injuries, with autism, with learning disabilities, are studied and treated. Her parents were sent home with a detailed regimen of physical exercises, cognitive and manual stimulation, to be done every day.

“Everyone thought we were crazy,” laughed Sandra Buckman, as she described the process of “rewiring the brain’s short-circuits.”

“The brain grows the most from age zero to three,” she said. “(Children) love to learn. They just soak it up. That was the premise for the program they set up for Nina.”

That the program worked exceedingly well for children with Down’s Syndrome became abruptly apparent to the Buckmans. One day the doorbell rang and the child who’d previously never spoken a word lifted her head and said, “I’ll get it.”

Nina Buckman now is a far cry from a nonverbal child. She likes to chat and engages easily with everyone around her, but especially so with the students she assists in Courson’s class.

“They love her,” said Courson, as she described the advantages of having Nina Buckman in her classroom. “She knows what they need. When she’s here, I put her to work.”