When my friend Suzanne told me she was nominating Gretta for the Stephen Tsai Award for Excellence in Autism Education, I didn't hesitate. I nominated Gretta for the honor, too. Then I convinced my boys to do the same. It was an easy sell. Noah and Henry believed Gretta was the right person to receive the award. They adore her. We submitted our letters, crossed our fingers, and waited.
When the boys learned Gretta had won, Noah threw his arms in the air and yelled, "Yes!" Henry never stopped smiling.
Suzanne and I read our nomination letters Friday at the Autism Society of Iowa's annual fall conference, where Gretta accepted the award. She was deeply honored to be recognized.
I have shared my family's nomination letters below. Read on:
It is my pleasure to nominate Gretta Berghammer for the 2014 Stephen Tsai Award for Excellence in Autism Education. Gretta is a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and has been instrumental in providing inclusive theatre activities for youth on the autism spectrum.
My sons Noah and Henry met Gretta a few years ago when they first attended Spectrum Theatre. Spectrum Theatre is a “Play in a Day” program created by Gretta for students with autism. The sessions are held on Sunday afternoons during the school year on the UNI campus. My boys went reluctantly, but we thought we’d give it a try after hearing good things from another family. I was skeptical of the program. Our family has been involved in other activities in the past that didn’t work because well-intentioned people did not have the knowledge, support, consistency, or the creativity to work with kids on the autism spectrum.
To my surprise, the program was well organized, appropriately staffed, consistently the same with the exception of a variation of themes, and it was fun!
As my sons became more comfortable and connected with Gretta, the theatre, and the university students who assisted, they began to look forward to those Sunday afternoons. It became a time of imagination, creativity, and socialization. My son Henry does NOT have autism, but Gretta has allowed him to participate because it helped my son Noah to feel more comfortable – and she instinctively knew it would help my shy son Henry to grow in many ways, too.
For the past few years, Gretta has encouraged Noah & Henry to participate in Sturgis Youth Theatre, a month-long summer theatre program. They had no interest. I knew how much they would grow if they could be involved in a summer theatre program. I took them to last year’s performance of Jack and the Beanstalk. They both enjoyed it and even recognized a few classmates in various roles (including a boy with autism), but they couldn’t imagine themselves being involved in anything similar.
Earlier this year, Gretta asked my sons to read a few scripts she was considering for this year’s summer play. Would they be up for the challenge of providing her valuable feedback? It was serious business. Noah and Henry met Gretta at a local coffee shop on more than one occasion to discuss their thoughts and eat cookies. They gave their reports. She asked questions. Noah volunteered to read various versions of Cinderella and report his findings. We emailed a few times to discuss important agenda items. Needless to say, the boys were thrilled to assist the director. She referred to them as dramaturgs. (Yes, this is a real word.)
When Gretta announced she had chosen The Glass Slipper: The Story of Cinderella, they were already familiar with the script. After all, they had been important players in the process. She asked, “Will you help me out this summer? Will you work with me in Sturgis Youth Theatre? ” They both said yes.
It was wonderful to see them so valued, included, and appreciated for their efforts. They both felt a part of the team before the play began. She had roped them in, unbeknownst to them. It was nothing short of a miracle, as far as I was concerned!
During the summer my sons didn’t bat an eye about packing up a picnic dinner and spending five hours at the theatre. (I was over the moon with excitement, too, when they were gone for such a long stretch.) They met new friends and were privy to inside jokes. After being gone for 2.5 hours at rehearsal, they would say things like, “Well, that went fast.” They learned a lot about self-discipline and working with others, too.
I expressed concern to Gretta that Noah didn’t have any 1:1 support, if he needed it. She assured me he did. He just didn’t know it. A college student had been assigned to give him support or direction when the need arose. The woman had thought of everything!
Even during the long days that included a cast party or dress rehearsal, Noah asked, “Mom, can you drop us off early so we can socialize?” I nearly fell off my chair. Socialize? My shy son Henry said the same thing.
I was proud of my sons when they acted in six different public performances of The Glass Slipper: The Story of Cinderella. At least seven students in the play are on the autism spectrum. It was beautiful to see these amazing kids on stage, surrounded by peers. It was one of the best things my kids have ever done.
Where some teachers see roadblocks and challenges, Gretta sees opportunity and ingenuity. Where some teachers see a disability, Gretta sees ability.
I am forever grateful to Gretta for seeing abilities in my sons and for encouraging them in Spectrum Theatre and Sturgis Youth Theatre. Both of my boys want to participate in these activities until they are too old to continue. They have both committed to reading scripts for next year’s play.
Gretta is a teacher who has helped students on the autism spectrum feel included, appreciated, and valued. She is a bright spot in our community and deserves this state-wide honor. Please give Gretta Berghammer your full consideration for the 2014 Stephen Tsai Award for Excellence in Autism Education. Thank you.
My name is Noah Rouw. I am 13 years old and on the spectrum.
Gretta Berghammer has helped me grow in different ways than my teachers could. She has helped me and other people on the spectrum to open up our mind and use our imagination. That also made us socialize more and interact better.
When she gives out directions, she expresses the directions so that we can understand and she is also a little funny in the process. During the school year, she hosts a Spectrum Theatre at the Strayer-Wood Theatre. She also has some of her university students helping her out as well.
Gretta has changed my life by making me look outside the box and at my everyday problems in life. She has also helped me with working with others.
She deserves this award because she has improved many lives for people on the spectrum and will for many years to come.
And from Henry:
My name is Henry Rouw. I am 9 years old and am going into 4th grade. I have two brothers with autism.
Gretta Berghammer is an amazing person. She is great with kids on the spectrum. She does a theme and everyone does activitys based on the theme.
Gretta has changed my life. Because of Spectrum Theatre, I have become more social, and have gotten use to being with new people. It also got me brave enough to be in a Cinderella play directed by Gretta.
I hope she wins the award.