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‘Making spirits bright’: Morgan Academy student teaches school mates to be accessibility-conscious

By Staff | Dec 6, 2019

Savannah Basileo, a fifth grader at Morgan Academy, was one of the students volunteering at this year's Christmas in Shepherdstown opening festivities on Friday night. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — “For the first time, we’ll have students participating in Christmas in Shepherdstown’s opening celebration from Morgan Academy,” said organizer Judy Shepherd with a smile.

According to Shepherd, one of those students has changed the way many of her classmates view people with accessibility needs.

That student, nine-year-old Savannah Basileo, was dressed as a Who from Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” like her fellow classmates. Posing for pictures in front of the McMurran Hall lawn with the Grinch and Cindy Lou Who, the students gathered close together, as one of them held onto the back of Savannah’s wheelchair.

“I like to do it with friends, because I know they can help me,” Savannah said of the event. “I’m enjoying it. It’s pretty cool how everybody gets together as a community to do a huge event.”

Savannah has severe scoliosis, and at the time she was diagnosed with it at five-years-old, her back was at an 80-degree Cobb angle. Because of the severity of her case, she had to undergo surgery to have rods put in her back. According to her mother, Shaquita Basileo, a math teacher at Morgan Academy, after the surgery, Savannah’s back was at a 20-degree angle.

Some of the Whos greet passersby, before the Christmas in Shepherdstown opening festivities begin on Friday night. Tabitha Johnston

“The reason she’s had all these issues, is her muscles aren’t holding her spine up tight,” Shaquita said, mentioning that she has continued to have surgeries to replace the rods as she has grown, and is currently healing from her eighth back surgery. “If we had done nothing, her ribs would have started infringing on her internal organs.”

When Savannah is not expected to be standing for long periods of time, she will often use her walker to move, rather than a wheelchair. Learning to walk, according to Shaquita, took a lot of effort.

“It was hard for her to learn how to walk, because [her spine] was bending her over to the side,” Shaquita said. “It’s good for her to see she can do the things she sees her friends doing. It lifts her spirits.”

Shaquita has seen how both her daughter and students have been able to learn from each other, since her daughter enrolled at Morgan Academy for kindergarten.

“I think it’s good for the other kids, to understand that there are kids who have challenges who are part of our community. We should welcome them, just like anyone else. They need to learn how to live around someone with disabilities, because kids with disabilities deserve to grow up and be part of activities, too,” Shaquita said, mentioning she hopes Shepherdstown will continue improving its accessibility.

Four-year-old Sylvie McGowen and seven-year-old Benji McGowen visit with Santa Claus in McMurran Hall on Friday night. Tabitha Johnston

“A lot of times we have to leave her outside when we need to go into places,” Shaquita said. “I hope she’ll be able to go into places and establishments with her friends, to do all the things normal teenagers do.”

Community members roast marshmallows over the fire pit manned by the Shepherdstown Volunteer Fire Department on King Street on Friday night. Tabitha Johnston

Shepherdstown's Christmas tree was lit up in front of McMurran Hall on Friday night. Tabitha Johnston