Thursday, December 3, 2015

Miracle Workers Making A Difference

by George M. Graham Jr.

The following article is a modified version of a presentation that I made on November 19, 2015, for the Exceptional Children's Teachers of Excellence ceremony, at the 65th Conference on Exceptional Children, in Greensboro, N.C. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to speak to over 3,200 attendees including over 110 Exceptional Children's Teachers of Excellence who were honored at that ceremony.


I started work in the field of special education the same year that Congress enacted the law that would guarantee students with disabilities the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Being there from the beginning, so to speak, has provided me with opportunities and experiences that have helped me to learn and grow.

I want to share with you five keys that I learned over the years to be helpful in all endeavors of life. The five keys are Passion, Motivation, Relationships, Persistence, and Thankfulness.


In his book, The Element - How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Ken Robinson tells the story of Mick, who attended a boarding school in England in the 1950's. Mick had a family who loved and supported him. He also had great friends, but he did not do well in school and was very frustrated and unhappy.

Although Mick's teachers thought he was bright, according to testing he lacked intelligence, and he was failing miserably. His performance in academics confounded his teachers. Even though there was not an official diagnosis of learning disability in those days, Mick acknowledges that he had a learning disability.

One thing that Mick really loved to do was bang and tap on things all the time. He had an epiphany when he visited his sister in London. He went with her to a nightclub to hear a group of jazz musicians perform. His dream of being a drummer was born that night.

At sixteen, with his parent's permission, he moved to London with a set of drums to pursue his passion. Through a series of fortunate breaks, Mick eventually became one of the founding members of the band, Fleetwood Mac. Mick, of course, became one of the most famous drummers in the world - Mick Fleetwood.

Someone once said, "God's gift to you is your potential. Your gift back to God is what you do with that potential." I encourage you to continue to learn, grow, and develop your passions. Incorporate your passions, whatever they may be, into your job. You may be surprised by what may happen when you do.


Motivation is a force that drives us to action and influences our behavior. Motivation is the driving force behind passion. John Lennon said, "There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance." The motivational force of love is what makes a difference.

When I was a little boy, my friend Jimmy and I used to ride our bikes and go exploring for miles around where we lived. One of the places we liked to go was Rowan Street Park. Back in those days, there was an elderly black gentleman, whom everyone referred to as King, that lived on the edge of the park property. He lived in an old shack that was inside a wooden fenced area that also housed other smaller buildings, to include an outhouse. He had no electricity or running water.

We were always fascinated by this place because it looked like a fort to us. One afternoon, as we were riding by, my curiosity got the best of me. I saw King outside feeding his ducks and chickens. We stopped, and I asked him a question about his animals. King graciously invited us in to show us all of his animals.

He proceeded to show us a variety of different animals. He concluded with showing us a mother possum and all her babies that were inside a big empty oil drum. He talked with us about each his animals. He told us that they knew they were safe as long as they stayed inside of the property. Then, he sat us down and read stories to us from the Bible. To be honest, it was an afternoon I will never forget.

I do not believe that King had a mean bone in his body. His only motivation was love. He impacted my life that day in a big way, because of his love for all his animals, his love for the Bible, and his willingness to share his heart with us. By the way, I think there is a point to be made about the motivational force of love and longevity because King lived to be 108 years old.

We intuitively know that our heart represents who we are. It is love that flows from your heart, the innermost part of your being, that will guide you in making the right decisions. Trust your heart and live your life by the motivational force of love. It will guide you in helping you to be your best and in making a difference.


Relationships are the foundation of all aspects of life. As you all know, any relationship takes a lot of work. There are times when we may feel that we are at the "end of our rope" with a parent, staff member, or even an administrator. Here is a little strategy to use when this happens. I call it Heart of Compassion.

How many of you have a pet or have owned a pet. Many folks treat their pet just like a member of the family and are very compassionate about their pets because they are very near and dear to their hearts. By using the word PET as an acronym, we can see a simple example of steps to take in developing a heart of compassion. The acronym stands for Practice Empathy and Thankfulness.

Here is the strategy - when you are frustrated with someone, think about your pet and focus on the tenderness and compassion you have for your pet. Allow those feelings to be a springboard in helping you to have tenderness and compassion with the person who is so challenging to you. Having these feelings should help you to be able to listen more actively, to seek to understand the other person's point of view, to focus on things you have in common and not on your differences, and in helping you to build trust.

Think about your pet to use your heart of compassion in developing and maintaining relationships with others.


There are times when we all get discouraged, and we may want to give up and quit. Persistence is a refusal to give up or let go. It is an obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. The following story was shared by Joel Osteen in his book, The Power of I Am.

In 1995, a young lady gave birth to twin girls that were born prematurely. One of the preemies had a severe heart problem and wasn't expected to live.

The hospital's policy was to keep the babies in separate incubators. Several days passed, and the one baby continued to go downhill and was very close to death.
One of the nurses felt that the babies should be put in the same incubator as they had been in their mother's womb. After much hard work and much persuasion, she convinced the hospital to make an exception to their policy, and they put the babies in the same incubator side by side.

Overnight, somehow the healthy baby managed to put her arm around the sick little sister. Much to everyone's surprise, the little sister's health started to improve. Her temperature came back to normal. Her heart stabilized. Little by little, day after day, she got better and better.

Today, both of those young ladies are alive and healthy thanks to a nurse who was persistent in taking the right course of action.

Persistence takes self-discipline, determination, and intestinal fortitude. Don't ever give up on yourself or your students. Stay focused on the results, taking one step at a time, as you persist in making a difference.


We are quickly approaching the time of year that we remember to give thanks for all of our many blessings. Our goal should be to count our blessings every day. Live life with an attitude of gratitude.

About a year ago, I was reminded of this in a very vivid way. I was working out behind our house where we have three levels of retaining walls to keep the dune from eroding.

I was at the top of the first retaining wall and somehow fell forward, flipping my body and hitting my head on the second level retaining wall. Falling approximately 12 feet, I found myself wedged in between the house and the bottom of the third retaining wall in a dazed state.

I was laying on my left side on top of my left arm and the left side my face was in the sand. I realized at this point that I could not move the entire right side of my body. I could feel blood running down my face. I coughed, and when I did, I spit up blood. I knew I had to move because I was having trouble breathing.

After what seemed like hours, I dragged myself from the back side of the house around to the front steps. I made it up the first flight of steps to the front door just as my wife was coming out to check on me. I realized then how thankful I was that my wife is a nurse because she immediately took charge and kicked into the nursing mode.

At the emergency room, the findings indicated two fractured vertebrae in the upper back and neck area and damaged ligaments along the spinal column. The next day I saw a neurosurgeon and after reviewing all my tests he said it was a miracle that I was not dead or paralyzed from the neck down.

Within a couple of days, I went to see my dentist for some x-rays because of numbness I was experiencing from hitting my head. I will never forget as I was leaving the office, the dentist said to me, "George, evidently God is not done with you yet."

Ladies and gentlemen, I tell you the same thing tonight, "God is not done with you yet." Each and every day you work miracles with the children you teach by making a difference in their lives. It is because you have a passion for what you do, love motivates you, you build a relationship with your students, parents, and peers, you don't give up even when you want to quit, and you do it all with an attitude of gratitude.

Every time one of your students walks across the stage at graduation; you are witnessing a miracle. A miracle that you helped to make happen.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am truly grateful for each and every one of you and the difference you make because you truly are miracle workers.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Surfing for Autism 2015

By George M. Graham Jr.

After numerous hours of planning and preparation, the Surfing for Autism 2015 event occurred on August 14th and 15th at Jeanette's Pier in Nags Head, North Carolina. It was the sixth annual event, made possible by the efforts of many amazing volunteers, local surfers, and the contributions from community businesses.

Logo by Jake Slagle

I had been asked to arrive mid-afternoon on Friday, the 14th to welcome and greet folks as they arrived at Jeanette's Pier. The first scheduled occurrence was the Meet and Greet, which started around 5:30. At this time, families had dinner provided and had the opportunity to meet others who are there to participate in the event.

During the Meet and Greet, there is usually the official welcome, announcements, recognitions, and a raffle. Little did I know, I was about to be completely surprised by what was going to happen at this presentation.

I had heard that photographer Bob Sumners was to be recognized. His wife, Ann, who is one of the Surfing for Autism Board members, was giving the speech for the recognition. It had been kept a secret up until this moment.

I sat down toward the front to be able to video what was about to happen. As I did, I thought to myself, "Isn't it awesome that Ann gets to make the presentation to her husband, Bob."

As Ann began reading her prepared speech, I was grinning from ear to ear in anticipation of Bob's being recognized. However, the further along she got into her speech, what she was saying didn't sound like it applied to Bob. As she came to the end of the speech, I was shocked to realize that she was speaking about me.

(L. to R.) Mark Slagle, Jennifer Lunceford, Eileen Lowery, Ann Sumners, George, Jean Graham, Becci Shealey, and Lisa Ammons.

I was honored to be the recipient of the Eric Gardner Memorial Award. Although it totally blew me away, I was very blessed to receive this recognition. I appreciated the members of the Surfing for Autism Board selecting me to be the recipient of this great honor.

The plaque I received was in the shape of a surfboard. At the top of the board was my name, with the Surfing for Autism logo and Surfing for Autism Outer Banks, NC 2015 in the middle. Just below, it reads, "Eric Gardner Memorial Award. In appreciation for your dedication, generous support and giving spirit. May you realize the countless smiles, encouragement, and hope, you bring to all those involved with Surfing for Autism."

Eric Gardner was an Outer Banks local whose coffee shop, Southern Bean, kept people awake and focused for years. He was a dedicated father, husband, and surfer who supported Surfing for Autism (SFA) with all he had. Eric passed away unexpectedly in 2013 and SFA honors him by an annual award given to someone who exemplifies Eric’s love for SFA, dedication to community, and passion for helping the children we serve.

After the Meet and Greet had concluded, the siblings of the participants in Surfing for Autism were provided the opportunity to go fishing. The participants and their families watched a special social story to help them to prepare for what would be happening. Then, the participants had a chance to get surfing lessons from the surfers down on the beach.

Watch the Social Story video below!

The next day, Saturday, August 15th, the main event took place. Over the years, the annual event has grown, not only with the number of participants but more importantly, with all the folks who come out to be part of the event. This year there were over 80 participants and the largest crowd of supporters that have ever attended.

Surfing for Autism was started in 2010 by Eileen Lowry and Mark Slagle, who are parents of children with autism. At the time, Eileen was the president of the local chapter of the Autism Society of NC. She met Mark, a local surfer, and they developed a plan with the help of several other educators and surfers which resulted in the first annual Surfing for Autism event. That year there were over 30 participants who were able to surf at no cost to their families.

Watch highlights from the Surfing for Autism 2015 below!

The mission of Surfing for Autism is to offer individuals and families impacted by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) a supportive environment to connect and share by creating opportunities to experience the therapeutic benefits of surfing. Through these opportunities, Surfing for Autism is also creating a greater awareness and a deeper understanding of ASD within the community.

For more information about Surfing for Autism go to

Saturday, May 30, 2015

On Being Hearing Impaired

By George M. Graham Jr.

I have a confession to make. I am a flower child from the 1960's. It transpired as the result of many influences, but mostly because of the "British Invasion". The music of the Beatles and other groups from England had such an impact on my life; I wanted to play music and eventually became a drummer.

AP Photo

Being a drummer and playing music in the 1960's and 1970's provided many positive experiences. Unfortunately, one of the adverse side effects of playing music during those years was that I suffered a hearing loss. The loud volume of music and the length of time of the exposure were the causes. The diagnosis is what is called a noise-induced hearing loss.

As part of the aging process, many people lose some of the quality of their auditory ability, especially in the higher frequencies. When I had my hearing tested in my mid-twenties, they informed me that I had the hearing of a 60 to 65-year-old man. I had lost my ability to hear some of the higher frequencies and it was starting to deteriorate in the range of typical human voices.

When we are young, many of us think we are invincible. We don't often think about the long term effects or realize the full consequence of wrong choices we make. If I intended to continue to play loud music, there were things I needed to do to help prevent my hearing loss from getting worse. Some of those things I implemented, but the one thing I should have done, to wear ear plug protection when playing, I did not do.

George M. Graham Jr. - Playing music - 1970

It was not until later in life when I realized how bad my hearing was becoming, that I finally started wearing ear plug protection when playing. It did help me tremendously, but as part of the aging process, my hearing has continued to deteriorate somewhat.

It was not until I was in my early fifties, after much coaxing from my wife, that I finally consented to get fitted for hearing aids. I am so grateful that I did because it has made all the difference in the world for me.

Simple sounds that I did not realize that I was no longer able to hear, such as birds singing, I was able to hear again with the help of hearing aids. They increased my ability to hear better on the telephone. I was able to carry on conversations and understand much more of what was being said than I had before.

One of the great benefits for my wife was the fact that I did not have to play the television or music as loud. Previously, in the car I would have a CD blaring so loud, she would have to wear ear plugs herself. Unfortunately, she probably suffered the consequences of my stubbornness to go and get hearing aids.

I went to see Dr. Lewis Gidley in Greenville, N.C. I had known Lewis when we both attended East Carolina University. He was also a fellow musician and knew about the type of hearing loss I had. After doing the typical evaluations, Lewis knew what to recommend for me.

For anyone with a hearing problem, I highly recommend that you seek out professional help to figure out the best options for you. Do not put it off. Do not be hard-headed like I was. The longer you wait, the more you will be missing out on the quality of life that you could have with the proper assistive technology.

There are some things you need to know if you are going to get hearing aids. It takes some time to adjust to them. Do not be impatient with yourself. Allow yourself time to get used to them.

As an example, after I got my initial hearing aids, we had a two-hour drive back home in my van. Part of that trip was on the interstate. The road noise that I was not able to hear before was almost deafening to me. Then it started raining, and the patter of the rain on the roof of the van was more than I could take. I had to take out the hearing aids for the rest of the trip home.

You may find that you will need to move slowly with the implementation of wearing your new hearing aids. It may be helpful to take a break from them for short periods of time as your hearing and brain learn to readjust to what you have not heard for a while. It takes two to three months of wearing hearing aids to become completely comfortable and to realize the full benefits.

For those who do not have hearing impairments, I would like to ask you to consider the following and ask that you endeavor to empathize with those who have difficulty hearing.
  • When talking on the telephone, especially when leaving a voice mail message - please slow down and speak distinctly. Often I have trouble with consonants, especially at the beginning or ending of a name. I sometimes find it necessary to ask someone to spell out the name for me to make sure I got it correctly. I also have difficulty with names and phone numbers in voice mail messages when a caller speaks too quickly. There are times when I have to ask someone to help me decipher the message.
  • Sometimes in social situations, like in a restaurant or at a social gathering, it may seem that those of us with hearing impairments may not socialize as much. Please realize it is not because we are anti-social, but it is sometimes hard for us to be able to hear amongst all the other noise in this type of environment. It can be embarrassing to us when we have to keep asking people to repeat themselves. Therefore, it may be easier to keep to ourselves.
  • When speaking with someone with a hearing impairment, try to look directly at them. Sometimes, we need to see the lips in to help us process the words being spoken. We read body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to help us to process what it is that is being spoken. All those things help us when we are not able to distinguish some of the words being spoken.
  • Please realize there are times when we do not respond as quickly to questions or things being said.  It could be because we are processing everything (lips, body language, facial expression, and tone of voice) to make sure we heard what you said correctly. Be patient and allow us time to process and respond.
  • Having a hearing impairment can be very draining. Estimates are that a person with a hearing impairment uses up to 50% of their energy on communication during each day, whereas those without hearing impairments may only use as little as 5% of their energy. In conversations, it takes more energy for us to focus to be able to distinguish sounds and filter out background noises.

Hearing Health Foundation (

Current estimates are that 30 out of every 1,000 school-aged children have a hearing loss. Further, estimates are that one out of five teens suffers from a hearing loss. Because it is an invisible disability, we cannot see a hearing loss, parents and educators should be aware of some of the signs or effects. You may notice a child continually asking you to repeat what you have said. You may see a change in the child's personality, such as aloofness or confusion. The child may mumble and say words incorrectly, or may not participate in group discussions. The child may talk louder than others. The child may complain of ringing in the ears (this is called tinnitus).

I share the following advice, especially for all of you young folks and musicians, and I speak from first-hand experience. Please remember to protect your hearing. When being exposed to loud noise, don't forget to wear ear plugs. Do not play your music overly loud when using earbuds or headphones - this can cause damage that you do not even realize is happening at the time. Finally, if you realize that you are having difficulty with your hearing, please seek out professional help as soon as possible.