Especially Needed A day in the life of Klayton Mundy

Story by Allen Laman | Photos by Sarah Ann Jump

You probably know Klayton Mundy.

If you don’t, he’d like to meet you. He’d like to hug you and ask you about your day. Become close enough friends with him, and he might kiss the top of your noggin and remind you that he loves you.

Monday night, Klayton’s head lays caressed in his mother’s hands, while the lower half of his 5-foot-5-inch body is sprawled across the sunset-lit carpet in his family’s living room. More than 11 hours of outward affection preceded the quiet moment, just as it does every day.

Because every day his big heart beats, Klayton gives it to the world.

After school, Klayton relaxes as his mother, Miranda, scratches his head at their home in Jasper. Head and back scratches satisfy Klayton's sensory needs.

Inside his Jasper home, his mother, Miranda, strokes his hair and his father, Ben, looks on lovingly. Klayton’s brother, Kade, 14, sits nearby. That’s where Klayton recharges and prepares to do it all over again.

If you know him, you know he’s not like this most of the time. But between tackling the first school day back from spring break, Unified Track practice and a trip out to eat with a friend, the 16-year-old boy is tuckered out.

Klayton was born with Williams syndrome, a developmental disorder characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability or learning problems, unique personality characteristics, distinctive facial features and cardiovascular problems. The genetic condition affects 1 in 10,000 people. Klayton’s heart has a little hole between the two ventricles, which impedes the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to parts of his body, and his aorta is narrower than the average person’s, causing his heart to work harder than most.

Klayton has sensory issues and often rocks himself back and forth to regulate his emotions. Klayton and his brother Kade, 14, watch television before school.

Those who have Williams syndrome are also said to have a “cocktail party”-type personality, and it’s easy to see why when Klayton fearlessly wanders to greet friends in a wide range of school cliques throughout the day. It’s something most teens would never have the guts to do.

Some call him “The Mayor,” because wherever he goes, he knows his people. And if he doesn’t know you already, he soon will.

“We usually try to avoid taking him to Walmart at all costs,” Miranda says with a laugh.

Monday morning, Klayton arrives at Jasper High School nearly an hour before classes begin to roam the halls in search of friends. He walks, hugs, talks and repeats — a pedometer shows that he covered more than a mile prior to the first bell.

Klayton arrives at school early to walk the hallways and greet his friends before classes begin.
During Introduction to Culinary Arts class, Klayton peers through the kitchen to talk to senior Justin Schmitt as he rolls out cinnamon roll dough, while Klayton does the same with classmates, from left, senior Emma Stenftenagel, sophomore Joseph Butler and senior Caitlin Knies.

Klayton’s morning classes are choir, physical education, homeroom and culinary arts courses that include students with and without special needs.

The sophomore doesn’t discriminate between the two when it comes to any of the countless ways he reaches out and shows love.

During passing periods on Monday, for example, he holds hands and strikes up small talk with five or more of his fellow classmates each time he marches from one classroom to the next. He chats with good friends during homeroom. In his culinary arts class, Klayton discusses with a group of students his recent spring break trip to Florida, while they worked together making dough and rolling it out to form cinnamon rolls.

Jasper High School junior Emily Dubon and Klayton embrace during physical education class. "I feel like a lot of people think that special needs kids are very different and they treat them different or bully them. That bothers me. This is my heart and soul. This is what I want to do for a career," Emily said.

“If there’s ever a day when I’m in a bad mood, or anybody is, Klayton comes in and is like, ‘Hey guys,’ and he hugs us,” says Megan Stiles, a senior student in that cooking class. “He brings a positive vibe and an atmosphere to our kitchen. It’s always great to see his smiling face.”

During his fifth-period work-skills class, for the first time all day, the words, “I’m tired,” escape his mouth, in between answers to questions designed to prepare students with special needs for real-life conversations. Moments later, however, he’s back to speed and ready for his next adventure: school lunch.

Klayton invites his friends, from left, sophomores Tristen Arthur, Ryan Sermersheim and Tyler Haag, to his birthday party during lunchtime. Klayton spent his lunch period bouncing from table to table to visit with friends from all grades and social groups.

Lunchtime offers students a chance to unwind, but Klayton doesn’t take it. If anything, it’s an even busier half hour for him. When asked who he sits with, Klayton replies, “Everybody.”

He’s not kidding. Klayton quickly bounces from table to table, approaching and holding on to so many peers that it’s a challenge to count how many smiles he sparks.

“In here, he’s like a little hummingbird,” gym teacher Tony Ahrens says with a grin as he supervises the lunchroom.

After his lunch period ends, Klayton migrates to the cafeteria dishwashing station, where he blasts trays and bowls with pressurized water before sending them off to be sanitized and dried. He completes that work in a paid position he holds at the school.

Students in the work skills class have paid positions washing dishes in the cafeteria.

Rick Stenftenagel is one of four teachers in the special education department, and oversees Klayton and the other students with special needs who clean the dishes. Stenftenagel explains that, while Klayton still has times when he is down, he has come a long way in his nearly two years at JHS. He’s developed a work ethic, and now knows how to stay cool under pressure.

Other teachers say his social boundaries have also improved. The special education department’s goal is to prepare students to hold a job after they graduate — an accomplishment Stenftenagel and Nancy Knies, a speech-language pathologist who works at JHS and Jasper Middle School, believes Klayton is primed to reach.

“I think he’ll be successful later in life,” Knies says.

Klayton participates in an applied English class for students in special education.

Klayton wraps up his time at school with applied English and mathematics classes that focus on reading skills and concepts like time and money.

Dismissal then comes and goes, but Klayton’s day is still far from over. He is a member of the school’s Unified Track team, which is an outfit that brings together students with special needs and those without them through a partnership between the Special Olympics and Indiana High School Athletic Association. By mid-afternoon, Klayton is warming up with the rest of the 63-member group.

Participants don’t know what events they’ll participate in this year, but last year, Klayton ran the 400-meter dash and competed in the long jump event. Monday, he circles the Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium track with his Unified Track partner, Tyson Brandt. Like many students and teachers interviewed, Brandt figures there’s a good chance Klayton has interacted with everyone in the school at least once.

Klayton runs and stretches with his Unified Track buddy, senior Tyson Brandt, at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium in Jasper.

“Everybody in the school knows him,” Brandt says of Klayton’s celebrity status. “He may not remember your name, but you’re gonna remember his.”

During practice, a test of the city’s tornado siren echoes across the stadium, and Brandt uses his hands as makeshift earmuffs to shield Klayton from the harsh whine. Klayton lives with an array of sensory-related triggers that can bring stress, like loud noises and the feeling of certain textures across his body.

Klayton has sensitive hearing and loud noises are one of his sensory-related triggers that cause stress. During a test of the tornado warning siren, Tyson was quick to cover Klayton's ears and comfort him.

Classmates recognize that, which is why Brandt jumps to block out the sound of the siren, and others are quick to scratch the palms of his hands and the top of his head when he is nervous or excited.

“Not only do they take care of Klayton and appreciate him, they protect him,” Glenn Buechlein, the school’s assistant principal, says earlier in the day. “And they go out of their way to make every day here for him special, I think.”

Even if he doesn’t outwardly say it, those who know him best can tell something is up when Klayton rocks his body back and forth or picks the skin of his lips. Ben said his son’s reactions to loud noises and disagreeable textures are also improving with age.

Klayton eats dinner at Subway with Jake Ruxer, a mentor from SIRS, to practice life skills such as ordering food, paying and restaurant interactions.

Post-practice, Klayton is off to eat with Jake Ruxer, a family friend who works at Southern Indiana Resource Solutions and takes Klayton out to dinner once a week. The two venture to Subway, where Klayton purchases his favorite item on the menu: a meatball sub. After Jakes takes him home, Klayton begins his daily relaxation time. He plops down in his rocking chair, slides his headphones over his ears and tunes in to music videos on YouTube. It isn’t long before he calls to Mom and asks her to scratch the head of his tired body, the evening sun cascades over both of them after yet another long day.

But that wasn’t the end, either. After getting up from the nap, Klayton and Ben make progress on a 1,426-piece LEGO castle. Klayton’s room is overflowing with past creations, as is the family’s basement. The Mundys admit they need to get more shelves to store them on.

Klayton and his father, Ben, build a LEGO castle.

In addition to everything he did on Monday, Klayton also participates in the Dubois County Special Olympics Track and Field program and the local TOPSoccer program, and he’s a member of Jasper’s Unified Flag Football team and the Optimist Club of Jasper. He was previously involved in the Special Olympics swimming program for eight years, rode horses at Freedom Reigns, and played in a Unified Basketball game, and much, much more.

He is a busy kid. But no matter how much he has on his plate, he always makes time to be with others.

“Because he’s happy when he’s around people,” Miranda says.

And if you know Klayton Mundy, you’re probably happy when he’s around, too.

The Herald | Dubois County, Indiana | April 5, 2019

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