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Sharing a triumph

Erik Nichols never let his Down's Syndrome stop him, and on Thursday his persistence pays off. At age 21, he will graduate from high school.

By SHERYL KAY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Erik Nichols, 21, and his sister, 17-year-old Lindsey, will graduate from Gaither High School together next week.
NORTHDALE -- When it comes to being a typical high school senior, Erik Nichols is about as mainstream as they come.

He was at homecoming, went to Grad Night at Disneyworld (and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning), and took a date to the prom (although he insists he danced with just about every female there).

He works part time at Pizza Hut when he isn't busy with his homework, his after-school service club, the Serteens, or sports.

And along with hundreds of other seniors at Gaither High School, he'll don the cap and gown Thursday walk up to the podium, and receive his diploma.

But there are a couple of unique characteristics about this young man from Northdale.

When Erik graduates, he'll be coming down the aisle just before his sister, Lindsey, and they are not twins. Erik, at 21, is four years older than Lindsey.

And Erik Nichols has Down's Syndrome.

"He's really not much different than any other high school senior," said Teri Nichols, 46, Erik's mom. "He will get a special diploma, but he does have to meet the TMH (Trainable Mentally Handicapped) criteria in order to graduate."

In addition to standard academic courses such as reading and math, Erik has taken a variety of electives, including computer science, agriculture and personal home living, meeting all class requirements.

Since he was 6 months old, Mrs. Nichols, a staffing specialist, and her husband, Steve, 46, a human resources director, have placed Erik in some sort of educational setting. When the family moved to Tampa in 1987, Erik was enrolled in the Caminiti Exceptional Center.

"It was all handicapped kids, but they did all sorts of normal activities with the kids," Mrs. Nichols said. "I never intended to take him out of there until I started hearing about LRE learning."

The LRE, or Least Restrictive Environment, model is part of federal law stipulating that challenged children should be educated in surroundings that are as mainstream as possible with non-disabled peers, and so many public schools opened their doors to classes for these students. Gaither was one of those.

"All his buddies were moving out, and Caminiti was becoming more for the severely handicapped," said Mrs. Nichols. "It was hard to take him out of this protected environment and put him in a high school with almost 3,000 students."

Now, five years later, Mrs. Nichols says the switch was the best thing that happened to Erik.

"Overnight he just blossomed," Mrs. Nichols recalled. "The social skills he developed were terrific. He was more independent, and he started to act more like a normal teenager."

For younger sister Lindsey, the experience has been tremendous.

"Its cool having my brother at school," Lindsey said. "Everybody knows him. He gets around. And everybody loves him."

While Erik spent most of his time at Gaither studying within his own program, there were opportunities for interaction with the general student population.

"They don't just isolate them," Lindsey said. "The kids all join one service club and everyone is mixed together, and at PE the classes are mixed, too. And everyone sees everyone in the hallway."

Kenny "The Sack Master" Huebner, a traditional graduating senior, has been friends with Erik since they were both freshmen.

"Erik might be a bit different from other seniors because of his heart," said Kenny, 18, who was captain of both the varsity football and basketball teams at Gaither this past year, and who often invited Erik to play in informal basketball games.

"I'm sure he's aware that he's not normal, but he's accepted who he is, and he doesn't let him hold himself back. I think I get picked a lot more than he does because everyone says I'm such a goody-two-shoes because I don't drink or smoke, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone pick on Erik."

Due in part, perhaps, to his love of sports, Erik rose in popularity and gained tremendous self-confidence. Since 1987 he has played baseball in the Northside Little League's Challenger program, and three years ago he began studying Songahm Taekwondo through the Number One Karate studio at 14837 N Dale Mabry Highway. A month after he started lessons, the rest of the Nichols family joined him, and today they all are first-degree black belts.

In order for anyone to receive the coveted belt, one must memorize a movement called a "form" that consists of 81 separate martial arts moves. During weekly lessons, Erik stood between his parents in case he lost his place amid the series of steps. On the night of his test, Erik executed the form alone. "He had tears in his eyes," Mrs. Nichols said.

But when it comes to graduation, Erik is all smiles.

"I'm happy I'm graduating," he said. "I want to get a job and move out into an apartment."

Erik's post-graduation plans are not entirely settled yet; a family vacation will be followed by one of several possible jobs.

He has his dreams, though. "I want to be a Beach Boy. . . . Help Me Rhonda," he said. "I want to be a rock star and play drums."

Lindsey, meanwhile, looks forward to a career in special education.

"I've grown up working with my brother, and I love doing it," she said. "I love the fact that I can help someone do something. I know back in the old days they didn't really know how to help someone like Erik, but now they can and I like being a part of that."

As with any pair of siblings, Erik and Lindsey have their moments, but they are very close.

"My sister's crazy," Erik said. "She talks too much . . . but she's very kind.

"Do I love her? Pretty much."

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