Filmmaker and Bethel native Reid Davenport, 22, came to Reed Intermediate School on Thursday, March 28, and met with two clusters of fifth graders.
Mr Davenport has cerebral palsy, a condition which reduces his ability to regulate his motor functions. His recently completed documentary, Wheelchair Diaries: One Step Up, focuses on accessibility in Europe for people with physical disabilities.
The two fifth grade clusters that were present during Mr Davenport’s visit are reading a book called Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper. The main character of the novel also has cerebral palsy. Fifth grade teacher Karen King said that Mr Davenport’s presence turned discussions they were having in class into a real life experience.
“For them to have someone come so close up, who has difficulty with a speech impediment and constant movement of his body, it makes you face your own reality of how you would react to someone who has this disability somewhere else. It’s sort of a reality check,” Ms King said.
Question topics ranged from sports allegiances to coping with cerebral palsy. Mr Davenport answered the students’ questions for nearly an hour with candor and humor. His light-hearted retelling of how a body spasm resulted in spilling soda on the family sitting next to him at a baseball game drew laughter from the audience and from Mr Davenport himself.
At one point Mr Davenport even poked fun at his father, who accompanied him to the school, when a student asked Mr Davenport the one thing he’d like to change about himself.
“My father,” Mr Davenport joked before adding, “that’s a great question. I wouldn’t change my disability because it’s made me who I am. I guess being sensitive. I wish I was less sensitive to what other people thought and less sensitive to how they judge me.”
Mr Davenport recalled the challenges of fitting in at school when he was of similar age to the students in attendance and shared how he overcame those obstacles.
“Middle school is one of the hardest because I feel like when you go to the middle school some kids are very worried about how they look and being cool,” he said. “And sometimes I wasn’t always the cool kid to be around. So sometimes I did feel left out, but I always had friends who helped me through it and I always focused on people who cared.”
After the question and answer session, Mr Davenport was given a bouquet of flowers and a round of applause by the students and faculty.
Some students reflected on the experience after the assembly. Miles Dievert, 11, said he was impressed with the Mr Davenport’s ability to connect with people.
“I think Reid’s gift is communicating with people because he’s really smart. He knows what to say to people about his challenges with cerebral palsy,” Miles said.
Lindsay Dievert, 11, said that Mr Davenport’s differences were just superficial.
“Everyone is different. His differences are just bigger than everyone else’s. His challenges are greater. But he’s still like everyone else on the inside,” Lindsay said.
Natalie Saunders, 11, saw parallels between the challenges Reid experienced and the challenges her brother is faced with.
“My brother also has a disability, he has autism and he is a lot like Reid is,” Natalie said. “He wants to blend in but it’s hard for him. I felt like it’s good people could look past his disability and learn to understand him and how his body works, what makes him tick.”
Owen Perchuk, 10, said that Mr Davenport offers hope for other people who are faced with similar challenges.
“Reid is such a wonderful person, he has challenges he can overcome it with such brilliance. He has so much to offer to the world,” Owen said. “Other people who are like him can look up to him and say I can do this. Other people can look up to him as a role model.”
Lauren Kohler, 11, said her initial feelings of apprehension gave way to understanding as Mr Davenport shared his thoughts and experiences with the students.
“When I first saw him I sort of felt a little nervous, but when he kept talking I sort of learned to feel the way he felt when he was younger. If you see past his body you can learn he’s actually a really nice guy,” Lauren said.
“He has a good sense of humor too,” Victoria Stevens, 10, added.
Ms King hopes Mr Davenport’s story will empower students to overcome challenges they may encounter in the future.
“What I hope they learned is to not be afraid of people who are different, to seek to understand before anything else, and also to be resilient when you figured out your challenge. Even [Mr Davenport] said ‘I’ve overcome some challenges and I know there’s more in the future.’ That message of resiliency is the underlying theme,” Ms King said.
Mr Davenport was scheduled to debut his documentary at the Boys and Girls Club in Ridgefield later that night and give a motivational lecture “Everyone Has a High School Story.” Mr Davenport’s website, www.wheelchairdiaries.com, provides additional information about the film including a trailer, and other video content related to the project.