Teresa E. Loving
The recipient of the Ninth Annual Freida J. Riley Teacher Award is Teresa E. Loving, Special Education Teacher and Founder of S.O.A.R. Academy in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The award is sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, in cooperation with the YWCA of Harrison County, West Virginia.
Teresa grew up struggling in school as the result of a severe learning disability and had a troubled childhood and hated school. At 16, she quit high school and turned to drugs and alcohol. Teresa's saving grace was her high school teacher Louise Scruggs. Ms. Scruggs saw what others did not and convinced Teresa to return to high school, where she got the tutoring and extra help needed to earn her diploma.
After a series of dead-end jobs throughout her twenties, Teresa's cousin, Debbi Thomas, encouraged her to enroll in the local technical school where her dream of working with handicapped children was born. Initially, she hoped to gain certification in early childhood education in order to work in a daycare center. This was the first step in an arduous journey from becoming a teacher's aide, to earning a teaching certificate, and later a Master of Education, National Board Certification, and then further master level coursework. Her perseverance in attaining her teacher certification speaks volumes about her character. After failing the teacher certification exam four times, she received "test-taking strategies" from a professor, and passed the certification test on her fifth attempt. This is a testimony not only to her commitment, but that of her friends and instructors as well, as she struggled to overcome her learning disability to achieve her dream. They saw the passionate and compassionate teacher she was destined to become.
After working for nine years as a Special Education teacher, budget cuts were made to the early intervention program which provided local disabled children with physical, occupational, and speech therapy, as well as academics and sensory therapies. Teresa knew that the formative years-the first three years of life-and pre-school years are important to all children, but most especially to those with developmental disabilities. Teresa was concerned that the time lost by not teaching and providing therapy to the disabled in early childhood would permanently damage their learning capabilities upon entry in the local school system.
When community efforts to reinstate these much needed services failed, Teresa began dreaming of opening her own school where children with special needs would be able to learn and thrive in a place tailored to their needs - a place where their individual education and therapy needs are combined under one roof. Teresa resigned from her teaching position, thereby relinquishing the security of her salary, benefits and Board certification stipend in order to pursue her dream. She began a grassroots effort with the help of her friends, teachers, parents, nurses, therapists, and other community members to provide services to children with special needs in a three-county area in South Carolina.
The S.O.A.R. Academy was born. S.O.A.R. represents Success, Opportunity, Achievement and Rewards. The school serves children with a broad range of physical and developmental disabilities, including autism, mitochondrial disease and spina bifida.
Ms. Loving was honored at a dinner award ceremony on May 1 in Harrison County, West Virginia.