Photos by Rome City Schools

Aracely Tomas never meets a stranger, and according to her mother Vanessa, it has been that way since she was able to share her zeal for life with others.

Aracely is a fourth-grade student at East Central Elementary and her energy is infectious. She high fives her fellow classmates; she hugs her teachers. Her smile illuminates the room and everyone at East Central adores her company. She never turns down the chance to grow closer to her friends, but she and one of her fourth-grade classmates now share a bond that has grown beyond the banter of besties on the playground.

Sophia Tant is also a fourth grader at EC and she found common ground with Aracely via a tough transition.

Both Aracely and Sophia are new to East Central. The young ladies had to switch schools last year and their parents knew the change would require them to make new friends with a new class, hopefully easing the nerves associated with finding a new home for education. Once they discovered this common connection, the two girls became inseparable.

Sophia, when assigned an essay about one of the most important people in her life, never hesitated to craft her story about Aracely. Once finished, EC educators invited parents to the school for a special presentation of the students’ work.

Sophia’s parents, Eric and Jessica, knew she was working on something important. They said she would come home at night and work on her narrative, but insisted that they not know who it was about until they visited the school to hear her read it aloud for her classmates, teachers and other parents invited to the school for the event.

As the room listened to little Sophia pour her heart out about the importance of Aracely in her life, eyes welled with tears of joy. That day, East Central witnessed the meaning of unconditional love and sisterhood, a lesson we all can learn from and that came from two little girls who found acceptance in an unfamiliar school.

Aracely was diagnosed with Downs Syndrome when she was born. Children with this diagnosis experience developmental challenges, and they are known for their bright and kind personalities. Since Rome City Schools has a goal of giving all of their students the best opportunity to succeed, Aracely spends much of her time in the classroom, learning right alongside all of the other students in the school.

When asked about why she chose her best friend as the subject of her narrative, Sophia confirmed what EC has come to know about Aracely.

“I think what is special about her is that every time she sees someone, or me, and she can tell that something has happened to them, she asks if they are okay. She wants to know if there is something wrong and she wants to help,” said Sophia. “She sits down with them and she lets them talk about it. When my teacher asked me to write about a special person, I picked Aracely because she is my best friend. I wrote about how we met, how long we have been friends and how long we have been playing together. I went all out because she is my favorite best friend.”

“I want to have a sleepover with Sophia,” said Aracely when asked why the friendship she shares with Sophia is special to her. “We can eat popcorn and pizza and watch ‘Frozen.’ Just like Kristoff, she is my friend.”

Aracely also said that they work together in class, and when they can, they sit next to each other. And when Sophia complemented her on her handwriting, Aracely laid her head on Sophia’s shoulder and smiled.

Perhaps what was so special about this particular meeting at East Central was that Principal Wesley Styles and Kriszti Kilpatrick, RCS Director of Special Education, invited the girls’ parents to the school for their interview. Eric and Jessica Tant, and Vanessa Tomas, sat at the table and watched the interaction of their children.

“She has a natural sense of wanting to help others,” said Vanessa, Aracely’s mother. “I have never forced her to reach out to others who may be sad. She always kind of just did it on her own. We see the same things from Aracely at home that Sophia sees here at school. She has a brother who attends East Central and she is also very close to him. Even when he tries to bicker with her, she just takes it. I spend more time making sure he understands how to interact with her, but Aracely just gets it.”

Vanessa said that she was concerned about changing school locations last year. Aracely is the only child with Downs Syndrome at EC, and she wanted her daughter to be able to adapt and feel comfortable. Now, she knows that Aracely will be okay and much of it has to do with finding a friend in Sophia.

“I was worried about her being bullied, but all of the kids here at East Central have been really nice to her and she loves it here,” said Vanessa. “Not only is she growing socially, but her speech and ability to learn new things is getting better every day.”

“Much like Aracely, Sophia has always been a kind person,” said Jessica, Sophia’s mother. “She has an older sister and they have a really great friendship, as well. They are 18 months apart and they have developed a bit of sibling rivalry lately, but they are still very kind to each other and to their classmates. We have always tried to teach them that no matter what, they should treat others like they would like to be treated. It makes us so happy to see that she has found a friend in Aracely, a friend who feels the same way.”

Both Eric and Jessica said that Sophia constantly talks about Aracely at home. And to find a school that reinforces what Eric calls the “Golden Rule” makes him glad that East Central is the place where his daughter will learn and grow. “I have always felt more satisfaction from doing for others than I do from focusing on myself. Sophia and Aracely have fallen right in line with how I feel personally, and it makes me feel so good to see it,” Eric said.

“As I was sitting here and listening to this interview, I was thinking that we all can learn from Aracely and Sophia. There is no judgment, which some folks typically do,” Styles said. “That is a strength I see in Aracely and in Sophia, and this relationship is something I want to share with my own kids. So many times we only hear about bad stories, but this story is an example that good people still do great things. When I heard about this, I said that we absolutely needed to get it out, because there is so much to learn from these two young ladies.”

Styles went on to say that because of the school culture at East Central, and the selflessness he sees every day in the hallways, they sometimes overlook the extraordinary acts of kindness they see in their students and in their faculty and staff. So, taking the opportunity to highlight stories like this one is something he plans to do more often. He met Aracely on his very first day walking through the school as the incoming principal, and he noticed the impact she had on everyone around her.

“As the Special Education Director for the system, one of my main priorities is really encouraging inclusion for all of our students,” said Kilpartick. “When we look at educating our students, it may not be appropriate for everyone to be in the same math class, but there are plenty of opportunities for us to include our special education students in the classroom. I have known Aracely since she was three, and when our IEP committee as a whole decided that she needed to go to East Central, everyone was nervous, just like mom was concerned in the beginning. Any time we make those major transitions, we give it tons of thought and we consider what is best for the child and for their family. East Central is Aracely’s home school. As adults we sometimes create barriers because we want to protect our children. These two girls and their friendship is a picture of the great things that can happen when we break down barriers. I am so happy that we can offer them the chance to build a friendship like the one they share.”