Multiple sclerosis is no match for beloved teacher
January 1, 2004
Lori Elkins Soloman
Frank Yusko is not one to give up the fight. Yusko, a social studies teacher at Spotswood High School, suffers from multiple sclerosis. Despite his ongoing battle with the disease, Yusko devotes much of his time to organizing a variety of community-service projects for students.
Heís also a volunteer fireman, and although his disease has progressed to the point where he can no longer physically fight fires, Yusko continues to be active in the social and civic activities of the Spotswood Volunteer Fire Department.
Yuskoís approach to life is as simple as it is profound: "I do what I do because I have no choice. Iím either going to do what I enjoy doing, or Iím going to sit on my duff and feel sorry for myself. I really donít choose to do that."
Yusko began developing his "never quit" attitude back when he was a social studies/education major at Trenton State College in Ewing ó and an amateur boxer.
During his college years, Yusko boxed in 25 amateur fights. His hard work paid off when he was a runner-up in the light heavyweight division of the 1979 New Jersey Golden Glove competition.
After graduating college in 1979, Yusko eagerly embarked on an illustrious career in teaching, which now spans 21 years.
"Itís something Iíve always wanted. I knew from my early years that this is what I was going to do," Yusko said. "I was fascinated by history and always wanted to teach."
The son of a World War II veteran, Yusko believes that teaching history provides him with the valuable opportunity to connect young people with the real world. At Spotswood High School, where he has taught for 13 years, Yusko emphasizes an understanding of current events. He also takes his classes on field trips; for example, last year his criminal justice class visited the Spotswood municipal building, where they saw the courtrooms, police department and even the jail cell.
Throughout the years, Yusko has received a variety of awards in recognition of his work as an educator. In 2002 he received a proclamation from Gov. James E. McGreevey for making "history come alive through his innovative curriculum." He has also received awards from Spotswood High School, the Spotswood School District, Veterans of Foreign Wars District 8 and the Optimist Club International.
Yuskoís contributions to the school extend beyond regular school hours. As adviser of the History Club, Yusko arranges for speakers ó ranging from Negro League baseball players to Holocaust survivors ó to talk to club members about their experiences.
"I didnít want the History Club to be just an Ďeggheadí club," Yusko said. "I wanted to put these kids in contact with people who had lived through historical events we had studied in class."
Members of the History Club also serve local veterans organizations by participating in projects such as the building of a park memorializing war veterans, a fund-raiser for the Spotswood 9/11 memorial, and the creation of a school "Wall of Honor" to honor Spotswood graduates who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Because of its efforts, the club played a major role in helping Spotswood gain the attention of the U.S. Department of Defense, which designated the town a WWII and Korean War Commemorative Community, Yusko said.
Yusko is also faculty adviser for the Octagon Community Service Club, which is a junior branch of the Optimist Club International. Octagon Club members work at the suppers sponsored by St. Peterís Episcopal Church "Community Kitchen" and conduct holiday food and toy drives.
A highlight of the year is the Special Kids Christmas Party, a joint project with the Spotswood Knights of Columbus, an organization to which Yusko belongs. Hundreds of physically and mentally challenged guests are invited to this party. Octagon members help the guests off their buses, serve them dinner, dance with them, and act as elves when Santa arrives.
Because there are natural crossovers between the community work done by both the Octagon Club and the History Club, the two organizations often work together on projects, including raking leaves at the home of a war veteranís widow, organizing a USO-style show and picnic at the Veterans Memorial Home in Menlo Park, and raising funds for multiple sclerosis research.
While many of these events have become strongly entrenched as annual traditions within the community, with each passing year Yuskoís physical health has gradually deteriorated. Although Yusko was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984, it was not until four years ago that he began to have serious problems with the disease, which causes the immune system to attack nerves. Since then, the disease has progressively worsened despite various treatments.
"Unfortunately, I have not responded well to them," Yusko said. "But Iím still trying and hoping for the best."
The former boxer now navigates around school in a wheelchair. However, Yusko is determined to continue the tradition of service that is so appreciated by his students and depended on by his community.
"The thing that is most aggravating to me is it is zapping me of so many things I used to enjoy," he said. "In the fall we go out and do leaf raking. We do snow shoveling in the winter for the seniors. We work the kitchens. I used to work shoulder to shoulder with the kids shoveling, raking and doing things, but I just canít do that anymore. The only thing I can do now is supervise.
"I have to deal with what Iíve been dealt with," Yusko said.
While Yusko is frustrated at times, his students are simply grateful he is their teacher.
"Heís regressed since my freshman year, but heís determined not to let this stop him," observed Danielle Cascella, 17, co-president of the Octagon Club. "Weíre just happy to have him."
Cascella said students and teachers in the school do whatever possible to assist Yusko by opening doors for him and helping him with his wheelchair.
"Itís really nice," Cascella said. "I donít know if itís this way in other places, but in Spotswood we take care of him."
As a result of his experiences, the master teacher has learned an important lesson himself.
"The good you do comes back to you," said Yusko. "The school, the community
canít do enough [for me]. Iíve made a lot of friends."
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