Local student imparts lessons while she works


By Chris Wadsworth

“Kids are nice,” Hannah Gamble said. “They love ice cream sandwiches.”

Hannah should know. She’s kind of an expert on little kids and ice cream. That’s because when Cedar Lane Elementary in Ashburn is open, Hannah runs the ice cream station in the school cafeteria.

She keeps track of all the ice cream sold each day — usually 250-300 frozen treats. She makes tally marks on piece of paper and watches for inventory that’s getting low. Then she opens a new box and restocks whatever ice cream flavor is needed. She also interacts with the students — smiling, talking to them and helping them with their ice cream choices.

“I love my job,” Hannah will say to just about anyone who asks.

“She does not want to miss work,” said Debbie Schwind, an occupational therapist who has known Hannah since kindergarten and works with her on mastering her job skills at Cedar Lane.

Schwind says Hannah, 21, has successfully met a variety of challenges that often face young people with Down syndrome as they transition into a work environment. They often can be overwhelmed by too much too fast — too many new tasks, too much responsibility, even too many people around — like a classroom of boisterous children. So when Hannah started working at Cedar Lane in 2016, she and Schwind — with the help of many teachers and staff — slowly helped Hannah build a tolerance for working in a busy school.

She started out helping in summer classes, which are smaller. Then she worked in special education classrooms and then she moved to general education classrooms. She performed tasks such as sorting papers, setting up snacks, assisting with art activities, and helping pupils get their jackets on and off for recess.

She also began working in the school cafeteria and eventually was put in charge of the ice cream station — a perfect match for the smiling, friendly young lady who says Reese’s Peanut Butter ice cream is her favorite.

“She is such a gem to work with,” said John Feist, the cafeteria manager. “She puts a smile on our faces every day.”

Working at Cedar Lane is a chance to come full circle for Hannah. She was a student there many years ago before going on to graduate from Stone Bridge High School in 2018. (She still attends some classes there, as allowed by Loudoun County Public Schools policy.)

“I am so proud that Hannah wanted to come back to Cedar Lane and work with us,” said Bob Marple, the school’s principal. “It is a blessing that our school family has added an alumni member to the team.”

The real magic of what’s happening at the school is something that many may overlook. Just as Hannah continues to learn new skills and grow herself, she’s also become an educator in her own way — by showing the children she meets that there are all different types of people in the world.

“They see her abilities instead of her disabilities,” Schwind said. “It seeds empathy and compassion and understanding and perspective and patience.”

The simple act of arranging a snack, helping someone with their coat or counting out frozen treats is just another example of the special lessons being taught at Cedar Lane — along with the fact that Hannah can serve up one delicious chocolate ice cream bar.

“I like to work with kids. I like working in the cafeteria,” she said. “I like to serve.”