Cumberland teen receives disabilities awareness award

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CUMBERLAND — Charlie Saffian has shown that although he has Down syndrome, he is ultimately no different from his other classmates at Greely High School, striving to be the best student, athlete and community member he can be.

The sophomore’s position as a role model – advocating for inclusive, respectful and safe schools and communities – has earned him recognition as the Cromwell Center for Disabilities Awareness’s 2017 Momentum Honoree.

It is the first time the Portland organization has presented the award, which Saffian will receive at the center’s annual dinner and auction fundraiser June 1.

The Cromwell Center has brought its message – that we all have differences, which in turn makes us all alike – to 80,000 students in grades 1 through 6 in schools all over Maine since 2004.

“We saw 14,000 children this year with programs … out of this little office,” Cromwell Center Executive Director Susan Greenwood said May 25 at her Exchange Street headquarters in Portland. “We’re going into that many classrooms, about 700 classrooms this year alone.”

Five contracted employees, all former teachers, are invited by the schools into individual classrooms to hold disabilities awareness-, sensitivity- and respect-building programs, Greenwood explained.

“Every year we get more and more requests, and see more and more kids,” she added. “… This isn’t meant for just kids without disabilities, or just kids with disabilities. It’s really meant for everybody, to try to strengthen that concept of ‘we really are way more alike than we are different.'”

It’s not about putting a blindfold on or being pushed around in a wheelchair, to understand disabilities, Greenwood noted. Rather, “it is about commonalities and kindness and respect, and focusing on similarities more than differences.

“Everyone has things they’re good at, everyone has things they struggle with, and everybody has something to bring to the community,” she said.

Charlie first experienced the program in third grade. His mother, Amy Saffian, was taken aback when she’d heard the program had been presented, figuring it was something for which she would have to prepare him. She found she need not have worried.

“It was so obvious to me, the professionalism of who they have, because whatever (the Cromwell staff) said, for the first time ever, Charlie raised his hand and said to the class, ‘I have Down syndrome,'” Saffian said. “You’ve got to have the right person presenting that to give a kid the confidence to do that.”

That confidence has only grown over the years, as evidenced in an interview with Charlie and his mother at Greenwood’s office.

“I’m doing really well in school, and I play a lot of sports,” he said, including swimming, soccer, baseball, and the unified basketball team. “My two favorite sports are basketball and soccer.”

He’s not too bad at swimming, either, earning a gold medal for a race using the often-challenging butterfly stroke. He remembered with a laugh when he had to jump out of the pool at his last swim meet, dry off, get dressed, and race down the hall for his first basketball game.

Charlie praised what he’s learned from athletics – not just how to play the sport, but key life skills such as sportsmanship.

Although it can be tough to juggle schoolwork with four sports, it’s taught Charlie the discipline to manage his time.

Learning new things academically can be difficult, he said, particularly as he advances through high school.

“Now I’m a sophomore, and I’m going to be a junior,” Charlie said, adding playfully, “and my mom does not want me” – the youngest of her children – “to be a junior.”

Still, that’s part of growing up, and he plans to focus more of his learning around academics instead of sports, he said.

“My favorite subject is history,” Charlie said, adding that he’s particularly interested in American history, especially the World War II era.

Charlie plans to share his story at this week’s banquet, which he thinks is “gonna be cool. It’s going to be a fun night.”

Rachel Williams-Clifford, vice chairwoman of the Cromwell Center board, nominated Charlie for the Momentum Award.

“As a parent of a child who also has Down syndrome, I’m grateful that Charlie is such a great role model in our schools and community,” she said. “He is relentless in his efforts to persevere and find his way. He never gives up and is a true trailblazer.”

Coincidentally, nearly four years ago Charlie’s older sister, Eleanor Saffian, was interviewed by The Forecaster when she was studying genetics at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by an extra chromosome. Those born with it experience cognitive delays, are small in small stature, have low muscle tone, eyes that slant upward, and one deep crease along the center of the palm, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.

Eleanor Saffian and her four younger brothers made hand prints after Charlie was born; his hand showed the crease that points to Down syndrome. However, that’s a mark of what makes Charlie special, his sister said at the time.

“We all have different things that make life kind of hard at times, and … we just try to look at Down syndrome as one of those things that can make life challenging, but can also make life wonderful,” Eleanor said, echoing the Cromwell Center’s message.

Although she at the time wanted to pursue a career in genetic counseling, Eleanor is now working toward a nursing degree in order to have more contact with patients, her mother said last week.

Thinking about his own future, Charlie said he’d like to have a house with roommates, and be a DJ. He’s into pop music, with a little rap thrown in, and he has played piano for the past several years.

Another of Charlie’s talents is as a maestro on the Xbox, often besting his sister, she fondly noted in 2013. Apparently, nothing has changed.

“He’s a whiz,” Amy Saffian said.

“Yeah, I am,” Charlie proudly confirmed.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Charlie Saffian, a sophomore at Greely High School in Cumberland, this week is receiving the first-ever Momentum Award from the Cromwell Center for Disability Awareness. He is pictured May 25 at the center’s office in Portland.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.