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VOL. 130 | NO. 8 | Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Serving Families

Maria Montessori School fills need for St. Jude families

By Don Wade

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Brennan Simkins is 12 years old and he’s had four bone marrow transplants. His mother and father each have been donors.

Maria Montessori School students Will Andrews and Ethan Klosky, right, work on finance and volumetric puzzle exercises at the school located in Harbor Town.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But he also has two brothers. And while Brennan was being treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Nat, now 15, and Christopher, now 11, needed to be in Memphis with their family but also needed to move ahead with their own lives. So their parents pulled them out of Catholic school back in North Augusta, S.C., and enrolled them in the Maria Montessori School on Mud Island.

“Our kids basically parachuted in there in the middle of the year,” said their father, Turner Simkins. “It was a huge blessing. The Montessori structure ended up being perfect.”

The Montessori structure is unique. The American Montessori Society describes it as “an approach that values the human spirit and the development of the whole child – physical, social, emotional, cognitive.”

The Montessori Method was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori.

Memphis’ Maria Montessori School was founded in 1986 by Maria Schuermann-Cole; she moved the school to Harbor Town in 1992.

“We can see St. Jude from our backyard,” she said.

While the school and St. Jude do not have a formal partnership, over the years many St. Jude families have found their way to Maria Montessori.

Maranda Arnold’s son, Zane, is now 8 and doing well. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. Arnold heard about the school from other families and at first would drop in with Zane from time to time, trying to give him a dose of ordinary day-to-day life by being around other children who weren’t sick.

“He needed a nurturing environment and social skills far more than an educational curriculum from a traditional school,” Arnold said. “He would do the lessons he could do and was excited about it and it wasn’t putting any more pressure on him.”

Four-year-old student Diya Linga draws a picture at Maria Montessori School. Diya is a sibling to a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Cole says they often have international students whose siblings are in treatment at St. Jude and the school is an especially good fit for them because language isn’t a huge barrier for younger children – “You’re taking a puzzle apart and putting it back together.”

A mother from Mexico, Luza Madrazo, who had two older children attend the school while another daughter received treatment at St. Jude, said in a letter: “I just want to make (you aware of) all the beautiful things my family and I received form the Maria Montessori School. … We remember that time like a contrast of feelings. On one hand there was so much pain and fear, but on the other hand we remember all the great persons that became our angels … .”

Over the years, Cole says, she’s discovered that bringing a degree of normalcy to families is “everything.” Both Turner Simkins and Maranda Arnold mentioned the school’s outdoor guide, Fletcher Golden – known as Mr. Fletcher to the kids and families – as having a huge positive impact. Arnold says her son Zane was difficult to handle because of the medication he was taking and that Mr. Fletcher made a connection, settled him down.

Simkins says there are times that, as a parent, you feel guilty for putting so much focus on the sick child at the expense of your other children. The school, he says, eased that challenge.

“There’s so much emphasis on self-reliance,” he said of the school’s structure. “We were focusing on Brennan and we were doing our best, but we couldn’t be around (that much). They were around the other kids, a place where everybody supports each other, where the kids taught each other.”

Brennan now returns to St. Jude at least once a year for a check-up.

“Every time we get back to Memphis we come by and say hey,” Simkins said. “Outside of St. Jude, that school was the biggest thing to happen in our lives at that time and I’m getting choked up just talking to you about it.”

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