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Education alumna lives for the ‘firsts’

Education alumna lives for the ‘firsts’

December 16, 2020 at 1:22pm

Amanda Hernandez became an assistant principal at 24 years old — in the middle of a global pandemic.

The FIU early childhood development alumna works at the Ann Storck Center, a Fort Lauderdale nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults with special needs and developmental disabilities. She oversees all of the educational programs, including the newly opened kindergarten that’s part of the Ann Storck Center Private School.

Hernandez stepped into her new role in July — which would have been challenging enough in normal circumstances. She quickly learned to navigate an entirely new educational world no one has ever navigated before.

“It means everything to me that we’re able to safely stay open for our children and their families during these stressful and challenging times,” Hernandez said. “We’re able to be that resource they desperately need and depend on. We’re here to be a source of comfort for our families.”

For Hernandez, reopening the school safely was about helping the families get a little bit of normalcy back for their children. Hundreds of families rely on the special education programs there, including the Under 3 Early Intervention Preschool, as well as the therapy and behavioral services.

Hernandez first started working at the Ann Storck Center when she was a student at FIU. Her first job was as a teacher assistant helping with classroom activities, feeding students and changing diapers. Later, she became an aftercare program coordinator. She planned activities for the children and also helped her supervisor with administrative tasks and other projects, which she says helped prepare her to become assistant principal.

Hernandez also credits FIU with giving her the skills that have allowed her to succeed.

At FIU, she was active in organizations, including the Student Programming Council, that helped her develop her leadership skills. She also came across Project Panther Life, which helped high school students with intellectual disabilities prepare to transition to college. Hernandez was paired with two students. For one, she was an academic mentor, providing guidance on how to manage a college workload. For the other, she was a peer mentor who showed how to get involved on campus. The experience made one thing clear to her — she wanted to continue helping students with special needs.

There are many things she loves about her work, but one of the most fulfilling and rewarding is what she calls “being a part of someone’s first.”

A father of a 5-year-old once came up to Hernandez and said, “My daughter told me ‘I love you.’” Those three words are sometimes taken for granted by other families. His child had never said them before.

These are the types of heartwarming milestones Hernandez gets to share in. She watches the children grow and learn. She’s lucky to have celebrated quite a few “firsts” over the years — and each one is just as emotional and joyous.

“Every day, I want to bring awareness to the fact that the kids we work with are just kids. If they can’t speak, we help them communicate in their own way. If they can’t walk, we help them get around in their own way,” Hernandez said. “It’s not that they can’t do something. And we’re here to help them, so they can do anything, in their own way.”