Stuff to know
One, a poet, pours out his heart on his keyboard. Another, a scholar, earns almost-perfect grades. The third, an artist, speaks best
in paint. All have succeeded despite an added challenge: a disability.
For their accomplishments, the three young central Ohioans are among 27 winners of a 2009 "Yes I Can!" award. The national
honor is bestowed annually by the Council for Exceptional Children.
Last month in Seattle, Bruce Amstutz, 17, of Grandview Heights and Justin Martin, 12, of Hilliard attended a ceremony hosted by
the professional organization during its latest Convention & Expo. Jonathan Tackett, 19, of the South Side accepted his award in
The council judges seek to honor young people who set themselves apart, spokeswoman Anna Baker said. "They look for
someone who, relative to their disability, has achieved things that are beyond the ordinary," she said. "They look for someone whose
story is inspirational."
Here's a closer look at the three Columbus-area winners:
* Age: 17
* Residence: Grandview Heights
* School: junior, Grandview Heights High School
* Award category: academics
Amstutz pushes his teachers -- not the other way around. The teenager, who has cognitive disabilities, was indifferent about
academics when he transferred from Canal Winchester schools to Grandview Heights before his freshman year. He had taken only
special-education classes and never studied science. He submitted sloppily written assignments on crumpled pieces of paper.
Grandview teachers, however, saw the possibility that Amstutz would become more focused if given the opportunity to learn
subjects in new settings. The suspicion proved true: Amstutz, with the help of an aide, has a 3.97 grade-point average after taking
biology, Earth science, U.S. government and other general-education courses.
"He's just taken it in like you wouldn't believe," said special-education teacher Chris Fidon. "His work ethic is so, so good. He hits
plateaus sometimes, but he never gives up." And Amstutz makes sure to alert teachers if his schoolwork becomes easy. "I love to be
challenged," he said. "I want to be challenged more, and they do challenge me."
For his next endeavor, Amstutz hopes to take a personal-finance class while preparing for life after graduation next year. He plans
to work as a custodian, as he does during school breaks, and save enough money to rent an apartment. Eventually, college might be
* Age: 12
* Residence: Hilliard
* School: sixth-grade, Hilliard Tharp Sixth Grade School
* Award category: the arts
The topics of his poetry include his grandmother's cancer, his mother's miscarriage and the dawn of civilization. "I like to write about
the subjects that matter," Martin said. "And sometimes that doesn't mean rainbows and sunshine."
Cerebral palsy inhibits him from writing with a pen, so his second-grade teacher encouraged him to record his thoughts on a
computer. What he typed was surprisingly deep. "His poetry was so beautiful from the first time he wrote," said Jeanne Melvin, a
gifted-services teacher at Hilliard Crossing Elementary School. "In 33 years of teaching, I've never met anyone who can do what he
Martin considers his writing ability a gift, particularly because some people with his condition are unable to speak. His weaknesses
are physical; despite therapy and eight operations, he might never walk. "That's fine; I have other purposes," he said. "I was blessed
with the ability to communicate."
Ideas come to him impulsively, when he realizes opportunities to capture and share human emotions. He has written about public
tragedy -- describing his piece on the Virginia Tech shootings as "a collective feeling of sadness harnessed in a poem" -- as well as
He wrote the first of several poems about his grandmother, who died in 2007, upon learning that she had cancer. "I wheeled over
to the computer and started typing what was in my heart," Martin recalled. "That poem was just 100 percent raw emotion." The
mature subject has landed him among adults in poetry readings at the Columbus Arts Festival and the Thurber House. He has also
spoken at a school-board meeting and to a state representative about the rights of disabled people.
* Age: 19
* Residence: South Side
* School: senior, Hamilton Township High School
* Award category: the arts
Challenged by verbal communication, Tackett speaks eloquently through drawing, painting and photography. "The words just don't
come out to what he's thinking," said his father, Tim. "I think art is an extension for him. He draws to express the things he likes." His
artistic career is traced to his childhood, when he started copying images of cartoon and video-game characters in true-to-form
detail. Tackett, who has multiple intellectual disabilities, draws from his photos.
He mowed lawns to earn money toward the purchase of a Canon camera last year. His favorite subjects include trees; houses;
and his cats, Priscilla and Socks. He also depicts images formed in his mind. "It's fun to do," Tackett said. "I can make my own world
like a castle."
Tackett's anticipation of art-class projects -- drawing, painting and three-dimensional design -- helps motivate him throughout the
school day, said special-education teacher Lee Ann Hamilton. "He looks forward to art, so he knows he has to get his other
academic work done," she said. "I think it gives him more confidence."
After graduating this spring, Tackett hopes to volunteer in school art classes so he can help other students while pursuing his own
interests. His artistic goals include improving his sketches of people and continuing to learn a computer program -- Adobe
Photoshop, which he uses to manipulate his photos.