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Former special ed teacher wants to send Montana kids to space camp

June 30, 2002View for printing

Until Mike Kersjes came along, special-needs kids never had a shot at Space Camp. The educational experience modeled after astronauts training for space shuttle missions and offered at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., might just as well have been on Pluto.

Associated Press

They weren't going. In 1989, the former teacher of special-education students and football coach changed all that. From his own principal's office in Grand Rapids, Mich., to the inner sanctum of NASA, Kersjes broke down barriers and earned his class the right to attend.

Kersjes recounts the battle and its final outcome in his recently released book, "A Smile as Big as the Moon." Over the past 13 years, Kersjes has motivated about 2,000 special-needs students in seven Midwestern states to pursue interests in math, science and technology at NASA's Space Camp through his nonprofit program "Space Is Special."

Kersjes now wants to offer that same opportunity to special-needs kids in Montana and aims to move his headquarters from Grand Rapids to Georgetown Lake Lodge where he will set up a ground school for special-needs students to train for Space Camp. "We're still working on it, but I want to make it clear ... our intentions are to move our headquarters there," he said, during a telephone interview recently. At ground school, teachers use a specific curriculum, designed by Marshall Flight Center. Students learn about space transportation systems, rocketry and propulsion, hydroponics - the science of growing plants in liquid mineral solutions - and astronomy. In Montana, they would also simulate a weightless environment by training in an underwater apparatus at Georgetown Lake.

The program trains kids to scuba dive, do flight simulations, problem solve, lead and work as a team. "I normally work with these kids 10 to 12 weeks before Space Camp," he said. "Some of these kids have never been exposed to a pool so we have to teach them to swim before we teach them to scuba dive." The preparatory work is essential, because these students will compete against some of the world's best and brightest, Kersjes said. Students with special needs must function at least at a fourth-grade level to qualify.

Normally a 15-week program, the Montana program would be consolidated into two one-week residential stints at Georgetown Lake to offset the lengthy travel that would be required to serve students from all corners of the state. "Given the extensive travel involved in Montana, we'd bring them in a full week at a time to minimize the costs for parents," said Fred Godbout, Georgetown Lake Lodge financial consultant.

The Big Sky state would become state No. 8 to access "Space Is Special." "The significance of this program coming to Montana is that it will eventually open doors for kids not just in Big Sky country but for other states in the Rockies," Kersjes said, noting Idaho, Wyoming and Utah would likely follow once the program was established in Montana.

"Your state will be the leader in that part of the country," he said. "They are the ones who have accepted the challenge."

Kersjes is working with the University of Montana, with the backing of Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., to obtain a grant from the National Science Foundation for $4 million over five years to support the effort. A separate NASA grant for $500,000 is also in the works.

The dollars would finance the ground school program and sponsor students with special needs to attend. The grant requires local matching funds to demonstrate community support, Godbout said. "We've already put out information on the need with the state's high poverty rate and low income," Godbout said. "We just need to show the community support."

That's where fund-raising, including the first Conrad Burns Celebrity Golf Tournament, comes in. The tournament, slated for June 29 at the Jack Nicklaus Old Works Golf Club in Anaconda, kicks off local fund-raising efforts and requires a donation of $1,000 to participate in the tournament. The money will be used to provide scholarships to send Montana students to ground school training and Space Camp. The tax-deductible contribution buys 18 holes of golf for two people, carts, lunch and a group photo with Burns and celebrities.

Among those scheduled to attend are Kersjes, former astronaut Bob Springer, Hollywood movie executive Chad Oman, Grizzly quarterback John Edwards and Mitch Lyons, who played professional football for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Atlanta Falcons. George Bailey, UM assistant vice president of research, said he expects to receive an answer on whether Montana receives the grants sometime in August.

"Our job is to also figure out a way to complete the circle," Bailey said. "so kids have a chance to apply some of these educational enhancements to stay and work here in the state." Kersjes said his program has already proved itself successful in other parts of the country. He recalled a ninth-grader with a learning disability and attention deficit disorder who the program inspired to finish high school and enroll in college at Michigan State University. He now has a teaching degree in biology and also works as a camp counselor at "Space Is Special."

Students' lives change, Kersjes said, because they become motivated to go beyond their perceived capabilities. "They don't get this kind of opportunity too often," he said. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises ...


'Celebrities' tee it up for space camp

By Tiffany L. Rehbein of The Montana Standard ANACONDA -- The earth might have tilted Anaconda's way a little when sports and space technology collided Saturday at Old Works Golf Course.

The course hosted Montana Sen. Conrad Burns and other `` celebri ties'' in support of the `` Space Is Special'' program -- a program designed to send special needs chil dren to the NASA space camp in Huntsville, Ala.

Burns is a long-time supporter of science and technology grants from NASA to Montana schools and is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space. Nineteen foursomes -- paired with a celebrity -- paid or were sponsored $500. All proceeds from the tournament and an auction go toward sending Montana special needs children to the space camp.

Mike Kersjes, who originated the idea of sending special needs kids to camp 13 years ago, was one of the celebrities. He recently co-authored a book, `` A Smile As Big As The Moon,'' with Joe Layden. John Norville, the screenwriter for the movie version of the book, was also in attendance. Norville's script was sold to director Jerry Bruckheimer, who directed, among other hit movies, `` Top Gun,'' star ring Tom Cruise.

Former Atlanta Falcon and cur rent Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Mitch Lyons started at the third tee. Lyons, a member of the `` Space Is Special'' board, was coached by Kersjes during his high school days in Michigan. Steve Stuckey, in public relations with the Detroit Pistons, started at the fourth tee box. Astronauts Bob Springer and Dick Richards began at tee Nos. 10 and 11. University of Montana football standouts John Edwards of Billings, Dylan McFarland of Kalispell, Brandon Neill of Great Falls, Brian Pelc of Helena, Butte's Chris Connors, Rory Zikmud of Harlowton, Dillon's Jon Skinner, Brett Staninger of Missoula and Joel Rosenberg of Whitefish also played the celebrity role.

Also in attendance were Leo Giocometto, an ex-U.S. marshal and former appointee of Gov. Judy Martz now lobbying in Washington, D.C., Jeff Garrard and Eric Iverson, representatives from Helena, University of Montana president George Dennison and his wife, Jane. Max Watson, retired chairman of IBM and landowner in Granite County, hosted a party for all involved Friday night. Just as athletes operate as role models, so do special needs kids need mentors in space programs. `` Having worked with the kids on a personal level, I've seen how it can impact their lives in a real positive way,'' said Dana Johnson, who works for the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Johnson works with ninththrough-12th-graders in underwater astronaut training. One of her great est moments came when working with Alex. Alex had an uncommon fear of water -- one so great that he took sponge baths out of sink and had his mother wash his hair in the sink. Johnson worked with him, taking one small step at a time through the underwater program. After more than two hours, Alex was in scuba gear and swimming in 24 feet of water. `` He was a different kid,'' Johnson said after Alex conquered his fear. `` His whole face just lit up. That's the kind of change I see. Kids every where should have that opportuni ty.''

That's where Montana fits in.

Kersjes was working with Greg Jenkins at University of CaliforniaIrvine and was put in contact with George Bailey at the University of Montana. Depending on the recep tion of federal grant money, a virtu al drop-in center could be based on the Missoula campus soon. In addition, a ground school -- modeled after the main space camp in Huntsville -- could be built at the Georgetown Lake Lodge where the children would learn about aero space. Regardless of whether or not the grant money comes through, pre-training for special needs kids will take place in Montana, Johnson said.

`` It costs a good bit of money to fly kids to Huntsville,'' Johnson said. Wherein lies the purpose of the golf tourney -- to help cover the $500 needed to attend camp plus other expenses involved with the process. `` Montana is a state that has the right spirit to make this program succeed,'' said Dr. Lynn Bondurant, a retired education program officer at the NASA Glen Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. `` It exhibits pride and understands a need to work with young people and help them succeed. It can help Montana gain new experiences in science and technology to create more jobs. Who knows, it might also find a way to keep Montana teachers in Montana.''

In the `` Space Is Special'' pro gram, schools would integrate the science curriculum into the class room. Kids would stay motivated by being presented with chances to win trips to space camp or to watch an actual shuttle launch, said Jenkins, director of the program at UCIrvine.

The program starts in the fifth grade and gets more advanced as the youths progress through school. As they find which area of science is most suitable to them, the stu dents work through college and eventually into a career. `` Next year, we plan to try to involve a group of teachers and stu dents from Montana in our flight program,'' Jenkins said.

The teachers and students would be chosen by state officials based on an essay. The program is already in place in 13 states.
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