Prior to the start of this season and days before Emily Fernandez was to make her varsity debut with the Colonia (Woodbridge, N.J.) High School girls volleyball program, head coach Tom Hennessy presented the 17-year-old with a letterman’s jacket.
Hennessy recruited Fernandez, who lives in Woodbridge but attends a school for students with disabilities out of district, while conducting a clinic five years ago for a township recreation program in which Emily participated.
“I would love to have your daughter play for Colonia,” Emily’s mother, Marissa Fernandez, recalled Hennessy telling her during their initial meeting.
“You do know she has autism?” Marissa asked, to which an undaunted Hennessy replied, “I don’t care.”
Hennessy said he knew Emily, diagnosed on the autism spectrum around her second birthday, had the potential to make an impact bigger than any player in his program, providing life perspective and teaching life lessons that teammates and opponents could not otherwise learn on a volleyball court.
The coach said he similarly believed players from Colonia and other schools could positively impact Emily’s life.
“At first she was very distant,” Hennessey said. “She didn’t know how to socialize with everybody. Over the years she has grown on all of us. The girls all embrace her. The girls made a friend and not just a teammate. That’s really the powerful message. I love watching these girls be human in a world that is so divided right now. This is our next generation, and they need to embrace each other.”
Marissa said the integration component coupled with Emily’s love for volleyball made the Colonia team a fit for her daughter as perfect as the tailored blue and gold varsity jacket.
“Coach Hennessy has done a lot for her,” Marissa said. “I don’t know of too many coaches that will go out of their way like that. When she first came to the team, (Hennessy) had a parents meeting and told everyone that Emily was autistic and that he expected the same respect for her as he does for all his players and that he wouldn’t tolerate any kind of negative comments from anyone. I felt good because I felt like somebody else was doing the awareness thing.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the identified prevalence of autism spectrum disorders nationally has increased from 1 in 110 to 1 in 68 over the past decade. One in 45 children in New Jersey are on the autism spectrum.
Autism is a lifelong neurological disorder that impairs a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others. It’s broad spectrum of characteristics range from severe detached and isolated behavior to extreme verbal and hypersensitive behavior.
Emily, who is in her third year with the Colonia program, made her first varsity appearance in the team’s season-opener against Perth Amboy earlier this month.
Less than a week later, former Old Bridge girls volleyball coach Bryan Garnett, who attended a home match against Colonia as a spectator, was so impressed with Emily that he left the gymnasium to call a reporter to say he “witnessed what’s good about humanity.”
“They put this girl in and the whole team embraced her,” Garnett said. “You could see the compassion of the whole team, including the coach. The whole team embraced the whole situation and worked with the girl. She hit the ball over the net and did a great job. It was just so awesome to see. Everyone around me in the Old Bridge section was applauding.”
Emily is not a novelty. She is as dedicated – in many ways, perhaps, more dedicated – than any member of the Colonia program. Emily has earned her time on the court, and Hennessy makes a concerted effort to get her in every match. Emily’s teammates work together in a well-choreographed effort to ensure they set her up with the ball when she is positioned in front of the net.
“He knows what she can and cannot do,” Marissa said. “If a team is aggressive with a lot of spiking and hard balls coming right at them, he won’t play her. He doesn’t want her getting hurt. For the most part he does let her play, even if it’s for a couple of minutes. I think that’s very encouraging. I’m sure it’s helped with her self-esteem, at least thinking that she has the skills to keep up with (teammates) because they encourage her and tell her how good she is.”
A collaborative effort between Woodbridge Township Public Schools and the New Road School of Somerset – a state-approved private school for students ages 12 to 21 with disabilities who have learning, language and social challenges – enables Emily to attend practices and matches.
Under NJSIAA rules, Emily is allowed to play volleyball at Colonia because she resides in district and her school does not offer the sport.
From an early dismissal accommodation to transportation arrangements, Colonia and the New Road School ensure Emily can be an integral part of the team. She reciprocates by packing her lunch and putting water bottles in the freezer each night before bed, by washing her own uniform and by doing her homework with teammates while waiting for matches to start. Being a part of the team has done wonders for Emily’s confidence and helped develop her social skills.
“Her drive to keep going and be a part of the team and keep up her half of the bargain is amazing,” Marissa said, noting Emily’s days, which commence at 6:30 a.m., can be long during the season, especially when Colonia has road games.
“I give her a ton of credit. She’s very self-sufficient for the most part. She just pushes herself, and we encourage it because I know she enjoys being around the other kids and she enjoys the team spirit.”
Emily was diagnosed at the age of 2 with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which the American Psychiatric Association has since reclassified as autism spectrum disorder. Marissa said doctors were hopeful that with the right resources and support Emily would be mainstreamed by the second grade, but “that didn’t happen.”
“She’s had fabulous schooling and achieved a lot more than I thought,” Marissa said. “Her ability to carry on a long conversation is limited. She communicates very well, but her sentences are choppy. She can’t always explain herself and she doesn’t really, like other kids, start up a conversation. If you talk to her, she will answer you. She’s just not a big talker.”
Marissa said Hennessy has become adept at helping Emily through occasional meltdowns, which are a part of her autism spectrum disorder. One day last year, when Hennessy was out sick, Marissa was called to the school during a practice because the team needed her help to quell Emily. Marissa said recently graduated senior Kelly Mitch, now a freshman at Stockton University, “pretty much had calmed her down.”
Emily made a profound impact on Mitch. Mitch not only made Emily the subject of a college application essay she wrote in response to being asked to describe a moment that matured her as a person, she is currently studying to become a special education teacher.
“Being with her and seeing how much of a difference we can make just by being a friend and being there for her on bad days and good days really solidified it for me,” Mitch said of her career choice, adding she learned more from Emily than she could have ever taught her former teammate.
“Emily really opened my eyes and made me realize that things you go through that really upset you, in hindsight, are so small in comparison to the challenges she faces every day. My (graduating) class really got to watch her transform as a player and a person. We had a really close relationship with her. She changed us so much.”
Marissa said Colonia players and parents have provided her daughter with overwhelming encouragement.
“The parents are so supportive,” she said. “They cheer her on. They encourage her. They’re a really great group of people. Even students that go to watch the game who I’m sure have no idea who Emily is are all applauding her when she volleys. It’s incredible to be around that because there’s still a lot of – I hate using the word – negative people. I haven’t encountered that (at Colonia) over the years.”
Marissa was able to attend Emily’s letterman jacket presentation, which took place in the high school gymnasium in front of players and coaches from the varsity, jayvee and freshmen levels. Marissa said the presentation moved her to tears.
“I literally had to reapply my makeup when I returned to work,” she said. “It’s something I didn’t think she would be able to achieve. Even special needs kids and challenged children can do things.”