Six-year-old Mikhaila Wirfel has been going to the Cooke Foundation class in Manhattan for only eight months, but she can already do things her parents once only dreamed of. She can say good morning to her mother, father and sister, Hannah, 4. She can set her own plate and silverware at the table in her family’s West Side apartment.
Those would hardly seem monumental achievements for most 6-year-olds, but for Mikhaila, who has Down syndrome, learning such simple tasks could have taken years. Just last spring, Mikhaila’s parents, June Eichbaum and Ken Wirfel, both attorneys, could not find any school in Manhattan that they felt would give Mikhaila the training she needed. So they decided to do something about it. Supported by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York and aided by donations from Dustin Hoffman and Itzhak Perlman, they and other parents last fall launched the only school in Manhattan for Down syndrome children.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder, affecting 250,000 people in the U.S., and its victims are characterized by slightly slanting eyes and a small flattened nose. They are slow to develop physically and have varying degrees of retardation, but most can master a number of skills. Yet while government-funded preschool programs for such children have improved nationwide in recent years, the help often stops abruptly when a child reaches school age. Author Emily Perl Kingsley, who has served nine years on the board of the National Down Syndrome Congress, reports that in this respect Manhattan is sadly representative of too many other cities and towns. “Except for the occasional very enlightened school district, the biggest problem coast to coast is the assumption that a child with Down syndrome is not educable,” Kingsley says. “I get phone calls every week from distraught parents who can’t find schooling for their children. Schools tend to want to stick them in classes where they are given no chance to reach their potential.”
When Eichbaum, 38, and her husband, Wirfel, 40, inquired, they quickly learned that private schools for the learning disabled in Manhattan would not accept Down syndrome children, usually saying their capacity was too limited. And the couple was appalled by the bleak special ed classes in the public schools. “Down syndrome children tend to imitate,” says Eichbaum. “If a child is acting out, our children will be quick to copy them. We saw one special ed class that included a deaf child, a hyperactive child, two who didn’t speak English, one who was battered and another who was profoundly retarded. The teacher was totally demoralized. She said she just waited to go home every day.”
Determined to find an alternative, Eichbaum and other parents looked unsuccessfully for space for a school of their own. Then one day Eichbaum received what seemed miraculous news: Brother Michael Termini, principal of the Sacred Heart School on Manhattan’s West Side, had heard of the group’s efforts and wanted to help. Within hours Eichbaum and a dozen parents were meeting with Brother Michael and Jim Simone, special education director of New York’s Catholic archdiocese. Recalls June: “Brother Michael told us, ‘It is the mission of the church to serve the poor, and who is the poorest of the poor but the retarded child?’ Suddenly we were given hope. I cried.”
Termini offered the group two large but shabby rooms at Sacred Heart, which the school could not afford to renovate. One parent, a contractor, promised to remodel them at cost, and the Cooke Foundation was established by Simone and several parents to raise the $80,000 needed to start a class. Eichbaum’s neighbors, Dustin Hoffman and his wife, Lisa, donated $25,000, and violinist Itzhak Perlman turned over part of the proceeds from a concert at Carnegie Hall. Last September the new class opened its doors, and nine small, faintly bewildered kindergartners traipsed in.
Now it is the next to the last week of the Cooke Foundation’s first school year, and in a bright yellow classroom a teacher is helping Mikhaila and her eight classmates paste cute noses and ears onto drawings of a child. Next a therapist leads the class through a pantomime designed to improve motor control. From time to time, older kids among Sacred Heart’s 400 pupils, many of whom have grown deeply attached to their new schoolmates, stop by. “Wow, look at J.C.,” a 10-year-old boy says affectionately. “You got a new haircut, huh, J.C.?” The younger boy beams.
“After Mikhaila was born, Ken and I promised that we wouldn’t go through life believing that fate had dealt us the joker,” Eichbaum says, “but a year ago we were close to despair. Now everything is different.” Then, taking Mikhaila by the hand, she heads for home, pausing outside to gaze fondly at the old building with its peeling paint and graffiti. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” June Eichbaum says proudly, “to see Mikhaila graduate from school here?”
—By Susan Reed, with Marge Runnion in New York City