Honoring Sandy Casey's legacy

Scholarship helps Pownal student pursue a career in education

POWNAL — Ashley Finkelstein is still pained by the memory of how her older brother Robert, who had dyslexia, was treated by teachers and friends. Some, she said, even called him stupid.

"Teachers calling students stupid is not okay," she said, sitting in the kitchen area of her family's small home in Pownal. "Nobody is stupid."

Robert, who died earlier this year in a car accident, wasn't really interested in school, and had a lot of trouble reading. But he had a teacher who invested time in him.

"I feel like that really gave him the motivation to keep going," she said. "In a big school, one teacher made one student feel like a star student."

Ryan, Finkelstein's oldest brother, also faced educational challenges. He has Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism. He dealt with other students calling him weird and a nerd, because he was so good at his classes, she said.

Their experiences helped inspire her to pursue becoming a teacher, a goal that came closer when she became the first recipient of the Sandy Casey Scholarship.

The $2,500 scholarship was established in 2017 by the family of Sandy Casey with major support from the Bennington Banner, the Manchester Journal, Burr and Burton Academy, Southwestern Vermont Health Care and friends of Casey. It aims to benefit Bennington County students who combine academic achievement with a desire to work with children, and who have a financial need.

Casey, a native of East Dorset, was killed in the Oct. 1, 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting. A 2000 graduate of Burr and Burton, she was working as a special education teacher in Manhattan Beach, Calif. at the time of her death.

Finkelstein will put the scholarship toward tuition and fees at the Community College of Vermont this fall. She chose the college because it was local, and less expensive than others.

"I'm really grateful for being the first [recipient]," Finkelstein said of the scholarship. "There's really only one first scholar."

Finkelstein learned of the scholarship from an advisor at CCV two days before the deadline to apply. "I just figured, why not?" she said of her decision to apply.

She plans to transfer to a four-year school after receiving her associates' degree, possibly to a school in New York.

"We're very proud — beyond proud — of her," said her mother, Angela Walsh.

Born and raised in New York City, Finkelstein, 18, has lived in Southwestern Vermont since 2011. Her mother moved her and her brother there to be closer to family.

Besides work as a dietitian at the Center for Living and Rehabilitation and — until recently — at McDonald's, she also kept busy with the Emerging Leaders Program through Mount Anthony Union High School, a career development program made up of sophomores and juniors from area high schools that culminates with a 40-hour local internship.

"It helped me learn how to voice my opinion more," Finkelstein said of the program.

Finkelstein graduated from MAUHS this year. She also participated in the Early College program in her senior year of high school, hoping to save money and to challenge herself. There, she took a class with a friend on early childhood education.

"I learned a lot," she said of the class. "And I want to learn more."

Two of the most important things she learned was that the first five years' of a child's life are the most important for development, and play is also key when it comes to child development, she said.

Finkelstein always succeeded in school, but she saw education become less fun as students moved up in grades, she said. As she got older, she found teachers were less friendly and piled on uninteresting work.

She fondly remembers the teachers who made education fun — as she plans to.

The teacher who invested so much time in her brother Robert — Ms. Ring — taught him to read over two years.

Robert was killed Feb. 1 at the age of 21 in a two-car collision on Route 7 in Pownal.

Robert's teacher gave the motivation to keep going, in an environment that didn't always suit him.

Teachers can't favor students — but they can make every student feel like they're favorited, Finkelstein said.

Finkelstein had a third-grade teacher back in New York like that, who went out of her way for her.

"Christmastime, she bought me the new twist-up crayons," she remembered. "I felt like the cool kid, because everyone wanted to use my crayons. She said it was from Santa."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BEN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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