Groundbreaking Education Program Continues to Thrive in Monmouth Country Schools
Photo – Laraine Gaunt, creator of It’s OK to be Different, celebrates the program’s 40th anniversary with Chloe Hoban, 16, of Middletown, who first participated in the program as a preschooler, and Sean Cuddihy, 20, also of Middletown, who presented a historical video of the program.
RED BANK, NJ – It’s OK to be Different, a trailblazing education program that has taught lessons on respecting differences to thousands of children in 17 public and private schools across Monmouth County, celebrated its 40th anniversary on Saturday, Feb. 16, in Red Bank.
Scores of program supporters, including local educators, social justice advocates and long-time volunteers attended the anniversary celebration, hosted by Glen Goldbaum, owner of the eclectic salon, Lambs and Wolves on Bridge Avenue. The event included the premiere of a video depicting the development and impact of the program through the years, produced by Sean Cuddihy, 20, of Middletown, a sophomore at Emerson College. Chloe Hoban, 16, a student at Middletown South High School, who was introduced to the program in preschool, also shared its impact in an essay reading.
The It’s OK to be Different curriculum was created by retired special education teacher Laraine Gaunt of Red Bank. “I realized that teaching respect, compassion and empathy had to be taught at a young age. Young children are instinctively more sensitive than adults and are not reluctant to express their true feelings,” explained Gaunt, whose program has been taught in Red Bank, Rumson, Fair Haven, Little Silver, Shrewsbury, Middletown and Colts Neck schools.
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The Fair Haven Borough School District was the first to introduce It’s OK to be Different in 1979 with “Understanding Disabilities,” the first segment of program. Gaunt went on to develop five additional units over the years that explore racial and ethnic differences, peer pressure, discrimination, bullying, and the most recent – “Embracing the LGBT Community.”
Each unit includes class lessons, age-appropriate literature, as well as speakers who share their experiences with students, such as Sherlock Washington, who is blind and shows children his independence and abilities by using technology and his other senses, and Debbie Kaiser, who has Down Syndrome and promotes inclusion and respect for her uniqueness.
Gaunt is pleased that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed into a law on January 31 a measure requiring LGBTQ and disability-inclusive history be taught to middle and high school students in the state’s public schools starting in 2020-21. “Acknowledging the important historical contributions of the LGBTQ community and individuals with disabilities is an important step in creating opportunities to understand and embrace differences,” Gaunt said.
Gaunt, whose work has been recognized by the NJ Department of Education, Holocaust Commission and Anti-Defamation League, has been invited to participate in an upcoming state conference to work with a small group of educators to help lay the groundwork and materials for teachers and school districts to implement the LGBTQ curriculum.
Additionally, stemming from one of the segments, “Courage to Care,” It’s OK to be Different has launched a program called the Upstander Club to encourage young people in area middle and high schools to be advocates for social justice and to contribute to their communities through service projects. For more information about the Upstander Club or It’s OK to be Different, send an e-mail to: [email protected].
About It’s OK to be Different
It’s OK to be Different is a comprehensive education program to teach kindness and empathy to children from preschool through middle school. The literature-based program includes six segments to foster understanding of disabilities, respect for differences and appreciation of diversity to build tolerance among children, our future leaders. Founded by special education teacher Laraine Gaunt, recipient of the prestigious Christa McAuliffe Fellowship, the program has reached thousands of children in 17 schools in Monmouth County, NJ over 40 years. The program has received recognition from NJ Department of Education, Holocaust Commission and Anti-Defamation League. For more information, visit ItsOKtoBeDifferent.org.