A longtime friendship forged in elementary school was the inspiration for a project designed to raise awareness about autism and generate money to support Oxford students with cognitive impairments.
About 100 folks attended a fund-raiser Sunday afternoon at Collier Lanes that yielded approximately $3,200 to benefit OHS special education classrooms.
“I couldn’t have expected a better turnout, honestly,” said Jordyn Zyngier, a fifth-year student in Oxford Schools Early College (OSEC) program. “It shows we are truly a small, loving community. We depend on each other for a lot of things.”
The fund-raiser was part of Zyngier’s OSEC capstone project. She wants to educate people about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and encourage everyone to “focus on abilities, not disabilities” when they view others.
Her overall goal is help folks understand that while individuals with autism – be they children, teens or adults – might think and/or act differently, they’re still just “ordinary people” who just happen to have some “unique characteristics.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), ASD is a group of developmental disorders that includes a wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of disability.
People with ASD often have social problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others, repetitive behaviors and limited interests. Individuals on the spectrum can range from mildly impaired to severely disabled, depending on their symptoms.
Besides challenges, people with ASD also tend to have a number of strengths and abilities including above-average intelligence; the ability to learn things in detail and remember that information for long periods of time; and a high aptitude for math, science, music or art, according to the NIMH.
Zyngier is quite familiar with ASD not just because she’s extensively researched the topic for her project, but because one of her “closest friends,” Andrew Pezolt, is on the spectrum.
The two met as second-graders in Oxford Schools. Their friendship has stood the test of time and distance as Pezolt, 19, moved to Atlanta, Georgia following his junior year at OHS.
“He has the type of personality that everyone’s drawn to,” she said. “I knew something was different (about him) when I was in elementary school, but I never really understood the concept of special needs and special education until I was in middle school.”
Over the years, Zyngier has found Pezolt to be a happy, cooperative, lovable and unique individual who never fails to make her smile. She credits knowing him and his family with making her more aware and compassionate.
“They made me the person that I am today,” she said.
That’s why it was such an easy and natural decision for Zyngier to choose autism for her capstone’s topic.
“Everything with this project has to do with Andrew,” she said.
Zyngier chose bowling because it’s Pezolt’s favorite sport. The event t-shirts featured the iconic Superman logo because that’s his “favorite superhero.”
The icing on the cake was, unbeknownst to Zyngier, Pezolt flew in for the fund-raiser with his mother, Shannon.
“I honestly had no idea,” Zyngier said. “Apparently, everyone else in my life knew, but I had no clue. It warms my heart. He’s the person that makes me happy.”
“She’s my best friend,” Pezolt said.
“Oxford’s his home, so here we are,” Shannon said. “He’s just having the time of his life today. He loves to bowl. He’s in a special needs bowling league in Atlanta and he does that every Saturday.”
Shannon couldn’t say enough good things about Zyngier.
“There are just a few people in life that we have met that truly have nothing but goodness in their hearts and go out and do things solely for other people. That’s what Jordyn is all about,” she said.
Shannon was grateful to everyone who attended the fund-raiser, which included friends, family, students, firefighters, police officers and school employees.
“Oxford is such a great community,” she said. “I’m happy to see such a fantastic turnout for this fund-raiser. We have everyone here.”
Shannon hopes events like this will help educate people that there is “no one-size-fits-all” when it comes to autism. Every individual on the spectrum experiences things in different ways and has different symptoms.
“The definition of autism is growing every day and includes many more individuals than it (did) before,” she said. “There are so many different variations of it. There are so many people that are being diagnosed on that spectrum.”
For example, her son wasn’t diagnosed with autism until just last year. Prior to that, he had been considered cognitively impaired since the age of 2.
Pezolt’s parents took him to doctors as a toddler because “he started missing a lot of the normal milestones that you hit as a child.”
“He wasn’t making sounds. He wasn’t walking. He was having some aversion to different foods,” Shannon said.
But the medical community didn’t characterize him as autistic at the time because “he’s happy, he looks people in the eye, he shows affection.”
Now, Pezolt is considered to be on the spectrum. One of his symptoms includes organizing things according to color, size, shape, etc. He used to do it with his toys. Now, he does it with his pens.
Although everyone with autism “requires something different” based on their symptoms, Shannon said the one thing they have in common is “they all require love” and that’s something her son has an abundance of.
“He’s the most loving person that I know,” she said. “He has absolutely no idea how to say something negative about another individual. He is nothing but love. He is nothing but happiness. He is nothing but (the enjoyment of) life. He has taught me so much.”
Being his mother has made her a much more patient person.
“It may take him two minutes to get a sentence out and I will sit and I will listen intently because it’s important to him and so, it’s important to me,” Shannon said. “Patience is the Number One thing that I have learned from him, that I take with me every single day.”
Zyngier thought about raising money for a large national organization, such as Autism Speaks or Special Olympics, but in the end, she decided it was best to invest in the special education classes at OHS.
“There I can see the benefit,” she said.
Zyngier used to spend a lot of time volunteering in these classrooms, but she had to scale back due to college classes and work.
“I do my best to get in there at least once a week just to say hi,” she said.
She enjoys making connections between special and general education students.
“Being that I’ve been so close to Andrew for so long, I enjoy seeing other students develop those friendships,” Zyngier explained.