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Leonardo teaches us all a lesson about challenges

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We all have challenges.

But this is the time of year when schools all over the province celebrate students whose biggest challenge would seem to be getting the highest marks in the class. It's the most academically exceptional students who receive the awards for that. What about the "others," though? The ones who aren't as gifted intellectually, but are just as exceptional in their own way?

Where are the awards for them?

Well, it turns out that kind of recognition does exist. A Manitoba student recently won an international award for being one of those other "exceptional" students.

Leonardo Navarrete functioned at below kindergarten levels five years ago when he entered École Powerview.

He was 13 years old then and he'd never been to school.

That wasn't because he didn't want to, but because of seemingly insurmountable cognitive and physical challenges.

"When he came to Canada it was his dream to come to school," recalls Nancy Kovachik, who became his resource teacher at École Powerview.

Leonardo, his mother, Angelica, and his younger brother, Moises, had moved to Canada from Mexico, which is where Angelica met Guy Lavoie, the man with whom they all now live.

Actually, Leonardo never said it was his dream to go to school, but only because he couldn't. At first, he had trouble saying anything because he didn't know English and he had a palate deformity that made speaking his native Spanish difficult.

"He was basically non-verbal," Kovachik says.

Understandably, given the situation, Leonardo had other challenges.

"He had great difficulty with behavioural and social skills and exhibited very little trust or self-confidence," school counsellor Linda Clark says.

Kovachik has her own memories of that time in 2008.

"We never thought that," she begins, then pauses. "Well, we didn't know what he would ever be capable of. Certainly speaking is something we wished he'd be able to do, but we never really thought that would happen."

Gradually, he began to learn and speak English. Not that he's fluent.

"He gestures and uses some of the English that he does know," says Kovachik. "We know him, so we know what he's trying to say."

But Leonardo wanted to do more than learn to speak; he wanted to learn to read, and with the help of education aide Alice Papineau, he did it.

Leonardo was 16 when he read his first book out loud. It was a picture storybook, the kind that typically has one or two sentences per page. His teachers were amazed. And they celebrated by making him a cake and decorating it with all the words from the book that he'd learned to read.

Today, Leonardo is described as extremely outgoing, a character, who loves to sing, joke and entertain and even deliver donated milk and fruit each morning to each class.

"He's 18 years old now," Kovachik points out. "But here's a young man who'd never been able to go to school, who never had that opportunity, and had this real desire to be in school and to learn how to do things. Who's just driven. Just determined to do whatever he could do."

It's that determination that inspires the other students.

"How could it not rub off on other kids," says Kovachik.

Last year, it also inspired her to nominate him for an award from the Manitoba Council for Exceptional Children, a non-profit organization that recognizes the exceptional achievements of "exceptional needs" students.

They're called the "Yes I Can!" awards and Leonardo won the provincial award in 2011 for outstanding achievement in academics. Then, earlier this spring, he won the big one; the 2012 international "Yes I Can!" award for outstanding achievement in academics. The award was presented in Denver by the Council for Exceptional Children, although visa problems prevented Leonardo from going there to accept it. But Kovachik was with him when the trophy and the T-shirt arrived in the mail.

"He was so excited when he pulled this trophy out of the box. He just couldn't wait to go and show other people what he had accomplished."

Which is how the kid who arrived from Mexico not being able to speak became the talk of the school.

"I'm amazed by how much determination he has," says Kovachik. "He's just an amazing kid. I'm so proud of him. The whole school is proud of him."

We all should be proud of him.

Leonardo, the severely challenged student, has taught us all a lesson that so many still haven't learned. That sometimes the biggest challenge is simply deciding your challenges can be overcome. That's Leonardo's lesson.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2012 B1

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