Idealism, Energy, and a Touch of Naiveté Led Me to William. Marathon Training Showed Me Just How Tough I Was.
By Andrea McDermott Sanders, MEd’06
“We are looking for a student to tutor our son. …”
So began an email blast that went out to all Peabody graduate students Sept. 13, 2004. Dr. Anderson Spickard, MD’89, a physician in Vanderbilt University’s internal medicine and public health department, and his wife, Margaret, were seeking instructional support for their son. William was 7 years old, in kindergarten and loved sports. He also happened to have a diagnosis of Down syndrome and ADHD.
Idealism, energy, and a touch of naiveté drove me to apply for the position. I had never worked with a child who had Down syndrome, nor had I ever taught anyone how to read. The cards were stacked, yet the Spickards offered me the position. In no time William and I discovered that we had a bond that transcended words. We connected through laughter, music and movement.
After a day of classes at Peabody, I would hop in my VW bug and head down Otter Creek Road to Percy Priest Elementary. William would sprint to my car with arms outstretched and give me a high-five or hug, depending on his mood. He’d reluctantly put on his seatbelt, and we’d trundle away to his house for tutoring. Teaching, however, began in the car.
“How was your day, William?” I’d inquire.
“Good,” William would say.
“How are you feeling, William?”
The sonorous vocals of Aretha Franklin would eventually replace conversation. William came alive to the beat of her music. He played the drums on the backside of the passenger’s seat as I, too, lost myself in the rhythm, planning our upcoming tutoring session in my mind.
Tutoring ran like clockwork at the Spickards’ house. William would take off his shoes and socks, dump his backpack, and dash to the kitchen. He’d make a beeline for the peanut butter, graham crackers and juice. Then it was time to get serious.
“My turn!” I must have uttered those words a thousand times. They signaled to William that playtime was over and that I was taking control of the peanut butter and crackers and providing gentle direction for the rest of the afternoon. In the span of 90 minutes, we would pack in snack and story time, fine and gross motor activities, literacy and social skill-building exercises and, of course, sports.
In fact, it was sports that led to the creation of Team William. Around the time William and I began working together, I discovered my own passion for long-distance running. After pounding the pavement in a half-marathon, I felt ready to go the full 26.2 miles. That is, only if I had a reason.
That reason was William.
Teaching a child to read is a challenging task. Teaching a child with special needs requires added creativity and planning. My marathon training, however, was teaching me just how tough I was. William was making progress, so why not provide this sort of one-on-one support to other children?
That December, I had this very same conversation with my parents, the Spickard family, and eventually the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development (VKC). We were told that if we wanted to raise money for the VKC Reading Clinic, then funding scholarships was a good place to start. However, we weren’t looking for a good start—we wanted to have a sustaining impact. The only way to do it was to set up an endowment that required $30,000 in initial seed funding. Cue my naiveté.
“No problem,” I said.
During the course of the next four months, I mailed more than 200 letters to family and friends and covered nearly 640 miles in training runs. Nashville’s annual Country Music Marathon became the conduit through which Team William became a reality. The entire Spickard family, along with mine, banded together to solicit financial backing for the project. The catch? I had to run 26.2 consecutive miles. In what turned out to be a truly collaborative effort, we managed to raise more than $30,000 and secure an endowment in William’s honor. Not to mention, I made it across the finish line.
That was one decade ago.
Fast forward 10 years. William is now 17. Letter-sound awareness exercises are an activity of the past; he now reads with relative fluency from select chapter books. So far, more than 34 scholarships have been awarded through the Team William Endowment to 14 children at the VKC Reading Clinic, helping children like William take their literacy to the next level. Team William T-shirts and 5K runs have sprouted up thanks to William’s sister, Anna. A Team William Discovery Grant under the directorship of Christopher J. Lemons, PhD’08, assistant professor of special education, is set to fund research to further investigate the behavioral phenotypes in children with Down syndrome.
All of this comes after covering nine marathons and more than 6,000 miles. From blazing hot temperatures to torrential downpours, marathon day in Nashville has had me running the gauntlet of race conditions. Sweat and sore muscles, however, have been a small price to pay for the return on investment.
Team William also has inspired me professionally. After teaching in the special education arena for five years, I transitioned to fundraising full time. From directing development at Seattle’s Academy for Precision Learning to leading advancement efforts at Seattle Country Day School, extending my impact beyond the classroom has been, in large part, because of Team William. Most important, I have learned that regardless of ability level, every child deserves the right educational fit and the support to truly hone a love for learning.
Today the Team William Endowment stands on sturdy legs. April of this year marked the 10th and final time I ran the Country Music Marathon in honor of William. It was a decade’s worth of “running to read.” Still, it’s only the beginning—the beginning of what I hope will be an ever-growing list of scholarship recipients. I also hope I have inspired others to enter the race and run after their ideas.
In William’s words, now it’s “your turn.”