At first look, Sharilyn Smith's class of second- and third-graders at Rivergate Adventist Elementary School in Gladstone, Oregon, is much like any other: a mix of boys and girls representing an array of ethnicities and personalities, all busy with their studies.
But upon closer inspection, one student stands out. In this sea of blondes and brunettes, amid black hair and red, her cascade of snowy white can't be missed. It's not gray, nor is it merely a light blonde. This girl's hair is perfectly, unmistakably white.
Meet Alyssa Payne, whose oculocutaneous albinism has not only caused the distinctive color of her hair and the delicate oh-so-light pink of her skin. It's also left her legally blind and unable to see accurately more than a couple inches past her eyes.
Not Your Average Child
Blindness wasn't remotely on the mind of Alyssa's mom, Chantal Payne, as she and her husband, Mark, were just trying to survive the first weeks of juggling their new baby girl and toddler son. With Chantal's fair complexion and light-blonde hair, the couple never suspected their pale-skinned daughter was anything but perfectly healthy.
That changed in a heartbeat just two weeks after Alyssa's birth, when the light hit her eyes just right and reflected back red. "My heart just stopped," says Chantal, whose distant cousin is blind from albinism. "I knew right then she was blind."
When Alyssa's big brother, Kyle, enrolled in kindergarten at Rivergate, it suddenly hit Chantal that, unlike public schools, a private school likely wouldn't have teachers' aides and special programs for the disabled. "That's when it started becoming reality," Chantal explains. "I realized she wasn't going to be able to go to an Adventist school, ever."
Not Your Average School
Without taxpayer support, Adventist schools often lack the resources to educate children with unique challenges like blindness. "What concerns us is whether or not we can ensure that each child can get the education he or she deserves," explains Ann Campbell, Rivergate principal. "But where we can help, we want to help."
The Paynes live next door to their local public school and hear how the students speak and treat each other on the playground. "That wasn't something I wanted for my kids," Chantal says.
It wasn't what Alyssa wanted either. During her kindergarten year in public school, she regularly asked her mom, "When can I go to school with Kyle and learn about Jesus?"
When the school district announced that the new budget was cutting Alyssa's aide, although she would continue to be in a mainstream classroom, Chantal decided to talk to the staff at Rivergate. "If she was not going to have an aide anyway, I figured why not be in an Adventist classroom," Chantal says.
Rivergate's principal recommended Chantal speak with the first-grade teacher, Ken Smith, to explore the possibility. Ken offered to evaluate Alyssa in her current classroom and even took the time to talk with her Sabbath School teacher. Armed with firsthand information and with Chantal's assurance that she would attend every field trip, Ken said yes. Alyssa entered first grade at Rivergate in 2009.
It wasn't always easy, but each day Ken tried new strategies to make sure Alyssa could fully participate in the classroom. Ken's work paved the way for Alyssa to continue at Rivergate, and he made sure to provide her next teacher, Sharilyn, with the strategies that worked.
Sharilyn, in turn, continues to look for ways to help Alyssa, such as keeping her desk at the front of the room and making sure she can sit in a high chair near the TV when a video is played. A slant board lifts her schoolwork closer to her face to ease the fatigue of leaning over constantly.
More recently, technology teacher Dan Patchin arranged for Alyssa to use a tablet computer in class, which clones what her teacher shows and writes on the classroom's interactive whiteboard and computer. "It's nice when we can find a way to use technology to give some extra assistance to those who need it," Dan says.
It's extra work for these teachers as they accommodate Alyssa's unique needs, but they feel honored to have the opportunity. "Alyssa reminds me every day to love life and live it to its fullest," says Sharilyn. "I think that here at Rivergate, we are doing what Jesus would want us to do for Alyssa."
It's the higher purpose that helps this special relationship of teacher and student work. Sharilyn and other dedicated Adventist educators know the secret. It makes no difference: Red and yellow, black or white — all are precious in His sight.