This is the story of Charlie, a little girl who loved school.
This is the story of her teacher, Sarah Norton, a member of the South Colonie Teachers Association, and the aides and monitors who work in this special education class.
This is a story of all her Saddlewood Elementary classmates; the two therapy dogs, George and Henry, who comforted her day after day; and the garden that came to life after her own life ended.
Charlie Louise Fernandez was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer the first day of kindergarten. When she was able to return to school in the Albany County suburb, it was decided that Norton’s grades 1-3 self-contained special education class was the best fit.
Charlie attended school in September 2019, then had a relapse in December. She became blind from her illness in January 2020 — and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Now she was at home, newly blind, with no services.
“A little girl who is blind and trying to access virtual learning…it didn’t go so well,” said Norton, who also noted that Charlie was without orientation mobility services, or services for the visually impaired.
“So I went to her house,” said Norton. “I visited twice a week.”
Like so many teachers, Norton went beyond traditional teaching duties during the pandemic to make sure students’ needs were met.
“Sarah represents the teachers of Colonie,” said SCTA President Jim Duffy. “It is so great to see her being celebrated for going above and beyond her job description.”
Norton also visited Charlie during the summer. They used objects to match shapes to help Charlie build positional concepts.
“I had to teach myself Braille. It’s really difficult. I’m not that great at it; I’m not going to lie,” said Norton, laughing. “I told Charlie we’d learn together.”
Norton made a wide cane out of a bent hula-hoop that Charlie could use to sweep the space in front of her to make sure she didn’t bump into anything. The little girl was afraid to go outside because she thought bugs would get her and she wouldn’t be able to see them. So Norton bought George a harness with a wide grip handle that Charlie could hold onto, and told her that George would “eat the bugs and keep her safe.
“We would get her up and down the road,” she said. George was, Norton said with a smile, her “fake seeing eye dog.”
Charlie’s parents Jason and Danielle recognized Norton’s efforts and nominated her during the Staples #ThankATeacher campaign, writing: “Mrs. Norton has gone above and beyond for our daughter and all of her students. … Mrs. Norton spends her own money on things and has made sure that she fights for her education and for all services she needs.” Norton received a $5,000 gift card to buy school supplies.
Charlie was able to return to school in the fall of 2020 when school buildings reopened. Each desk was fitted with a plastic partition, and the kids wear masks. Air filters were put in to further protect Charlie and the children.
Each day, George walked alongside her from the bus, guiding her. The kids — Andy, Calen, Travis, Queenie, Ibrahim, Christopher and others — helped her adjust to her blindness. They moved things out of the way for her. They ran and got things she needed.
“They were incredibly empathetic,” Norton said. Charlie allowed them to learn different social emotional skills. Charlie herself earned the Kind Human of the Year award, an annual district award.
“She was fiercely sassy,” said Norton, smiling. “She wanted to do what everyone else did. She was a hard worker.”
Helping her in school were monitors Dorothy Bellas, Liz Gaines and Heather Mikkelsen, and teaching assistant Judy Behrens.
“Everybody in the school knew her,” said Norton. “Toward the end I carried her everywhere I went. She couldn’t walk.”
Since Charlie passed away in April, this little community of children and parents has restored an unused courtyard garden into a burst of color and unicorns, her favorite animal. They rebuilt raised garden beds and filled them with geraniums, Black-Eyed Susans, hostas and tall purple lupine. There are tactile sand beds to play in and raised water trays. There are pinwheels and a bright red shade tarp. There is a fairy house. One family made a picnic table and painted it pink, one of her two her favorite colors. Benches were rebuilt.
It is called “Charlie’s Garden.”
“The goal is for it to be a sensory garden,” said Norton, describing plans to add more touching materials to the space, and pipes that will make sound.
The garden will have a plaque near the hummingbird feeder and an original poem written by fourth grade teacher Alice Chiapinelli O’Neill:
"Lessons in Wisdom and Grace From a Hummingbird"
hidden in compact bodies
resilient and joyful
coloring our world with hope
lend us your wings
so we, too, might soar