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One of my favorite things about being part of the #DreamTeam is our passion for inclusivity and diversity. It’s one of the main reasons I was so excited to connect DreamWakers with The Richard H. Hungerford School in Staten Island, NY, where I was born and raised.

The Richard H. Hungerford School is part of District 75, a network of schools dedicated to New York City’s students with disabilities who require special care. My mom is the nurse at the school and was thrilled when I told her about DreamWakers’ mission. She thought a virtual flashchat would be an incredible opportunity for the students.

After coordinating with Principal Kristin McHugh, and classroom teacher, Mr. Robert Bates, my team and I learned that the students participate in a work-study program. Through this program, several days a week the students go out into their community and work at the local McDonalds, baseball stadium, and pizzeria, learning important life skills. Mr. Bates and Ms. McHugh wanted their students to hear from a special needs role model who was similarly active in the community and could inspire Hungerford students to Dream Big!

Syd Lea, alongside his father, Rob Lea.

DreamWakers knew just the guy. Syd Lea, an all-star athlete, was a top winner for Team USA in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece, earning three of the team’s 10 gold medals in the international competition. As if being a champion cyclist wasn’t enough, Syd also participates in dressage, rowing, and skiing. Outside of his many athletic accomplishments, he has held a part-time position as a groundskeeper at Mount Saint Mary College for over 13 years, and last year was even named “Employee of the Month.”

On Monday, June 3rd, my colleagues and I took a trip to The Richard H. Hungerford School for our first-ever flashchat with a Special Olympics Athlete and a special-needs classroom. It was a winning flashchat for all involved!

Banners the class created for Syd.

On the day of the flashchat, Syd was welcomed with Special Olympics banners the students created in his honor, with inspirational messages, such as the Special Olympics motto, “If I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.”

The class came up one by one with questions they had prepared for Syd, eager to learn more about his work and many athletic achievements. For non-verbal students, an iPad facilitated the interaction. For others, teachers helped ensure successful communication.

During the chat, Syd and his mother, Tracy, mentioned Syd’s hard work to get his driver’s license. One of the students in the class is also trying to get his license. Syd and Tracy were able to relate, “It was hard,” Syd stated, “I failed five times”.

“There are practice tests, and he failed them many times. But he finally passed. Then a lot of practice driving and practicing as a passenger and talking about the rules of the road,” Tracy shared.

Student asking Syd a question.

The students also joked with Syd about sports rivalries, including the New England Patriots and the Boston Red Sox! Despite the distance, again, sports proved to be a unifying factor for this group of Staten Island students and their Special Olympics role model, Syd Lea.

Immediately after the flashchat, Mr. Bates wrote to DreamWakers: “The experience was honestly one of the best days of the year for my students. Syd brought so much to the table and his personality was infectious.” The class is already excited to have another flashchat next year, kicking off a new end-of-year tradition for their students.

Syd’s mom, Tracy Lea, shared her experience as well, “Maybe the best moment, was Syd getting into football scene after seeing the Manning shirt. For me, I just loved seeing the care, love, and dedication the teachers and staff have for their students. Preparing the students for this chat was a lot of work. I could feel the pride the students have in their jobs and the work that the teachers do to help the students prepare for the jobs.”

This inspiring chat wouldn’t have been possible without the support from the teachers and administrators at The Richard Hungerford School, the excited students, Tracy Lea, and of course, our inspiring guest speaker, Syd! It was a truly memorable day for the whole team.

You can see more about our in-person visit to the Hungerford School by visiting our Instagram stories.

Written by Alyssa Orcuilo, Social Media and Operations Fellow at DreamWakers.

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