Gabriel Dierking

Gabriel Dierking spends time with Erin Jensen’s horse. Jensen is a paraprofessional at Holdrege Middle School who works with Gabriel.

HOLDREGE, Neb. — Dawn Dierking was in awe when her son Gabriel made a call on the phone to the Holdrege Middle School office and communicated with the secretary.

Gabriel, a seventh-grader at HMS, is on the autism spectrum and is nonverbal. When he called the school, he used a series of sounds and a few words to talk to the secretary. Dawn credits the HMS Autism Team for the strides Gabriel has made.

“This seemingly simple task took months and months of hard, committed work to achieve. As parents, we can’t do this journey on our own. These people provide us a vision and hope for our son,” said Dawn Dierking in a nomination letter for the HMS Autism Team to receive the Nebraska Autism Spectrum Disorders Network Friend of Autism Team award.

The Holdrege team was presented the award Wednesday at the school. Members of the HMS team are Kara Whitcomb, Erin Jensen, Dave Berreckman, Lillian Buettner, Paula Hunt, Rita Kreutzer, Jennifer Nelson, Sarah Rimpley and Circle of Friends peers Jaron Moore, Zane Veal and Trey Weaver.

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Nominees for the award were evaluated on four criteria: commitment, vision, innovation and inspiration. The HMS team frequently attend trainings and work with their colleagues to create an inclusive environment for students.

“They use research-based practices, applied behavioral analysis, to work with students,” said Shana Orr, director of early childhood and special education at Holdrege Public Schools. “It definitely takes a huge commitment to do it and do it right with fidelity and implement throughout the day. It takes a team, and their team has embraced it and really done a nice job with it. They are just an inspiration.”

The Holdrege team also includes students who are part of Circle of Friends, a peer-mediated intervention that helps facilitate social skills development for students on the autism spectrum. It is research-based to show that it helps peers with empathy, caring and understanding, said Orr.

The relationships Gabriel has created with the students in Circle of Friends has evolved outside of the classroom. They have attended birthday parties at Gabriel’s house, swam with him at the pool and greeted him in the halls or in the community, said Gabriel’s mom. Their leadership and friendship with Gabriel have led to other students saying hello and giving him high-fives in the hallway.

Receiving the award motivates the educators to keep moving forward and providing the best environment for their students.

Kara Whitcomb, HMS special education teacher, said, “I think it’s just awesome. It gives us the pep we need to say we are doing something right and let’s keep going, which is nice. It’s awesome.”

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