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Welcoming 75 mentally challenged children into their school, students in a cosmetology program learn how real beauty comes from within and that kindness is a sign of great strength

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To some extent, we all fear the unfamiliar. The cosmetology students at Plant City (Fla.) High School are no exception. When their SkillsUSA advisor, Laurel Ritenbaugh, announced they would be providing grooming and hygiene services to mentally challenged children, the class grew quiet. Ritenbaugh could tell that her students were taken aback.

The advisor went on to explain how when the handicap is severely profound, some people have close-shaven heads (even the girls) because it is easier for their frequently overburdened caregivers to keep them clean.

Despite her students’ initial apprehension, they were all for helping out. Every Tuesday, 75 special needs children visit Plant City High, and although a casual observer may think they don’t understand what’s going on, Ritenbaugh says that’s not the case. “They can’t communicate the way we can, but how do we really know that they do not care?”

“The students from our school and from Dover Exceptional School always understand. We have parties together,” she adds. “Our students from Lopez Exceptional School have more challenges. Most of those kids do not speak, but all of them give us incredible eye contact. One human being to another: we'll see a smile, or a reaching hand. We still communicate. One boy named Rico likes to blow kisses when we are done.”

Some of the children who visit the salon live with their families, some are from group homes managed by the government. In most cases, they attend local schools.

Loving the attention

To help change things for both the special-needs clients and their caregiver, Ritenbaugh opened Plant City High’s salon four years ago. In the process, things changed at the high school, too. Apprehension gave way to friendship.

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The high-school and special-needs students now interact at lunch and in the hallway, Ritenbaugh explains. “And last year some of our [high school] students went to their special prom.”

As a result of the salon visits, another exceptional student, Mike Silva, has been Ritenbaugh’s class assistant three hours a day for the past few years. He’s leaving to complete his public schooling, but Ritenbaugh knows of a local salon interested in hiring him after he graduates.

“Most of those kids do not speak, but all of them give us incredible eye contact. One human being to another: we'll see a smile, or a reaching hand. We still communicate.”

The visits to the high school are among the few chances these special children have to interact with the public. Their teachers tell Ritenbaugh that the more opportunity they have to do so, the better. The cosmetology instructor adds that her own students likewise need the exposure.

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“Our students give the clients shampoos, haircuts, styles, manicures and even some facials. Some of the clients are like 200-pound 9-month-olds. They are unable to hold up their own heads up and must breathe with the help of tubes. Some are not as severely physically or mentally challenged, but all of the students love the attention. Sometimes it takes four people to help hold up a child to allow our students to cut his or her hair.”

Because she has a sister who works at a special-needs group home, Ritenbaugh, who’s been a SkillsUSA advisor for seven years, was inspired to help the mentally challenged. She faced no road blocks as she developed this project.

“The first smile or hug from a special kid captures us forever. It is contagious.,” she says. “The only difficulty in developing the project was learning not to cry every time we met an individual who was incapacitated, hurting or disfigured in some way.

“We are the ones who are really being helped here. Our chapter has had the opportunity to learn that kindness is not a sign of weakness. It is indeed a sign of great strength.

“Hopefully, more students can get together like this. There are lots of wonderful special citizens, and SkillsUSA students can connect to do lots of things. The possibilities are endless. It really is cool to be nice.”

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SkillsUSA Champions | Summer 2003 | Volume 37, No. 1
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