Working with young children with special needs is rewarding and a blessing beyond compare, according to one Seymour teacher.

Angie Schepman has been a special education teacher for nearly 20 years and specializes in serving students with autism.

As part of her dedication to helping, teaching and understanding her students, Schepman was the driving force behind Seymour Community School Corp.’s SOAR program, which was launched in the spring of 2014 at Emerson Elementary School.

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SOAR, which stands for Successful Opportunities with Autism Resources, is a program that allows teachers to focus their efforts on finding unique ways to meet students’ needs, giving youngsters a better chance to reach their potential and succeed in school.

On Thursday, Schepman was honored with The Arc of Jackson County’s Educator of the Year award during the organization’s annual banquet. She was praised for her commitment to and passion for making the world a better place for children with special needs.

“I am beyond humbled for this recognition and award,” she said. “It is such an honor. I can’t express enough how much I love working with my students. It is more than just a job to me.”

Mika Ahlbrand, director of special education for Seymour Community Schools, said the district is lucky to have Schepman’s expertise and compassion in the classroom.

“Mrs. Schepman is an invaluable member of our special education programs at Seymour schools,” Ahlbrand said. “She holds her students to high standards, utilizes thoughtful materials and programming for her students and is a great advocate for students with special needs.”

She also is a respected mentor and resource for other teachers and parents, Ahlbrand said.

“She is an amazing choice for The Arc’s teacher of the year, a much-deserved honor,” Ahlbrand said. “I am proud to have worked with and learned from one of the best.”

Schepman began her career in 1996 at a school near Cincinnati as a teacher for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The job required her to travel around three counties, providing special educational services to children.

But wanting to be closer to home, she applied for a special education position with Seymour Community Schools two years later and has been here ever since.

She is licensed to teach in several areas — general elementary primary and intermediate specialist, early childhood special education, hearing impaired, learning disabled and mildly mentally handicapped. She spent several years teaching in the developmental preschool at Seymour-Jackson Elementary School, helping 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds to build foundational skills.

“Being an early childhood teacher is a tough position,” Ahlbrand said. “She was often the first experience parents had when learning their child might have a disability. We know that early intervention is key for our students, and she plays a vital role in the lives of the students she taught during those years.”

Schepman’s passion for special education began when she was in middle school.

“I was given the opportunity to spend my study hall in a classroom for students with multiple challenges,” she said. “These children were amazing. The drive, dedication and energy they put into each task was fearless. I knew then I wanted to be a part of this incredible journey.”

For one year, Schepman worked as a general education kindergarten teacher and had the opportunity to support students with special needs who were included in her class. The next year, she returned to her passion — special education — by serving as the autism coordinator and teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing for Seymour Community Schools for two years.

She helped develop autism programming and evidence-based practices used throughout the district during this time, Ahlbrand said. Her love of serving students with autism led to the development of SOAR, and she currently is furthering her education in the area of autism through Ball State University, where she is working on graduate-level work in applied behavior analysis.

Schepman also continues to serve students in the district with hearing needs.

Mary Carlson of Seymour said Schepman is deserving of the award and recognition. Carlson’s daughter, Claire, was a student of Schepman’s for 2½ years.

“She was the first educator we came in contact with. She was always positive and caring,” Carlson said. “You could tell through her interaction, not only with Claire but all of her students, that she loved them and she really believed in them.”

Schepman’s attitude helped other parents stay positive about their child’s future, Carlson said.

“She gave us, as parents, comfort in knowing our kids could do anything they put their mind to,” Carlson said. “That meant a lot having a special needs child. So she has always been a special part of our lives.”

Schepman said too many people judge or perceive a person with a disability by their diagnosis or appearance. But if people take time to get to know someone with special needs, they will see how special they are, she said.

“They would most definitely change their perception,” Schepman said. “Individuals with special needs have so many gifts and talents that far surpass the neurotypical population. They see the world in colors, unlike all of us that only see things black and white.”

In the past 25 years, acceptance and inclusion of special needs students has come a long way, she said.

Schepman said she has been witness to these positive changes, not only in those students with special needs but especially in the general education students.

“You see such empathy and attention from these students. They have a willingness to learn about the individual with special needs, and they advocate for them, as well,” she said. “I have witnessed beautiful friendships between the two populations, something that 25 years ago you would not have seen.”

But there is always the opportunity to do more, she said.

“Inclusion, in my opinion, is still evolving, which means there is room for improvement,” she said. “I would like to see inclusion exceed past the school walls and grow in the community.”

Schepman said it’s her students, past and present, who are more deserving of receiving her award.

“Honestly, this award should go to them,” she said. “They have taught me more about strength, patience, facing tough challenges, endurance and life, far more than I could have learned without them. They taught me to paint rainbows.”

She wants her students to know how important they are and how much they mean to her.

“I hope I have instilled in them, that although they are faced with challenges, they can move mountains if they believe they can,” she said. “I hope they realize how much I care for and love each and every one of them.”

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January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.