When Christopher Ulmer graduated from Penn State in 2010 with a media studies degree, he had his heart set on coaching college soccer. The former two-year soccer player at Penn State Abington applied for coaching positions and ended up at the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky, which paid for his master’s degree in education and gave him a coaching position.
While there, Ulmer fell in love with student teaching. So, following his two years at the school, he began applying for teaching jobs.
Ulmer, a native of Philadelphia, has been teaching special needs children at Keystone Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, for just more than two years. He is currently working on a project called “Special Books by Special Kids.”
“Once I got there, it was like all of the cards fell into place and I just knew it was where I was supposed to be,” said Ulmer. “I was never one to believe in destiny or anything like that, but once I found it, I just knew it was what I was supposed to do. It’s just that feeling in your gut.”
The job was the first in special education for Ulmer. For the past two years, he has been working with the same nine students, all with varying forms of special needs. While he admits it took him a while to get a grasp the job, he has now been “accepted into their world.”
After getting to know his students, Ulmer decided to start the “Special Books by Special Kids” project. The project is an eight-chapter book featuring eight of his students, with each chapter including two parts. The first part is from the parents’ point of view, including what the child is like and what the family has been through. The second part of the chapter is a story, fiction or nonfiction, written by the child and illustrated by a professional.
“You get to step inside the child’s mind and you get to see the story they created,” said Ulmer. “All of the stories tell you something about the kid. Once that story is illustrated by a professional, I think it will really bring their world to life.”
The idea was initially inspired when Ulmer was at a wedding. He was sitting beside a couple reading a book to their child. The simplicity of the book got Ulmer thinking.
“As I was watching that, I was thinking, ‘My students could do that,’” said Ulmer. “Then, I started thinking, ‘Why don’t they do that right now? There’s no reason they shouldn’t. They’re more than capable.’ Then, I started thinking of why not make that an educational process for everybody involved and educate them on special needs individuals as well.”
Ulmer hopes the project will serve multiple purposes. For the parents, he hopes it will act as a resource for others who have children with similar diagnoses. For children, he wants to raise awareness.
“I’m hoping this project, for the kids, builds love, empathy and understanding,” he said.
Ulmer plans on releasing the book in late 2015 and expanding it a continuous series. The project's website includes video interviews with the children and photos.
All donations go to marketing efforts to spread the word about the project. Once the book is published, 50 percent of the proceeds will be split between the eight families. The other 50 will be split between the illustrator, the publisher and Ulmer.
Moving forward, Ulmer can’t see himself outside of a classroom and plans to continue teaching. But, he believes this project could become a full-time position at some point. For now, he’s just interested in helping and spreading the word.
“I would just want everyone to understand that if they see somebody with special needs, don’t be afraid to go up to them and interact and smile and say ‘Hi,’” said Ulmer. “Even if they don’t communicate back to you, they appreciate it. The parents appreciate it. Everybody is different. Understand that and accept it. Not all of us have to be the same. The world would be a boring place if we were.”