Norwich — When Norwich Free Academy senior Savannah Meaike was in fourth grade in Preston, she came home one day crying.
She told her mother, Lisa Meaike, a former Norwich elementary school teacher, about a boy in school who always sat alone, had no friends, and at recess just sat drawing pictures in the dirt.
“’Well,’” her mother recalled telling her, “’what are YOU going to do about it?’”
Savannah looked at her mother, paused and said: “I could go up to him on the playground and say: ‘Do you want to play?’”
Savannah couldn’t wait to go to school the next day and try it out, her mother said. The boy, who was on the autism spectrum, responded. He and Savannah played at recess, ate lunch together, talked and became close friends. Then something strange happened.
Savannah began to be shunned and bullied. She remembered responding defiantly, determined not to let it bother her and sticking with her new friend.
By the time the two reached eighth grade at Preston Plains Middle School, the boy was happy, confident and had many friends. He moved away from the area, but Savannah says they will be friends for life.
That experience has defined Savannah Meaike’s approach to school and social life and, she hopes, her future career. She says she will always will work with and seek friendships with people who have special needs. She has embraced the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” She used it last week in a motivational speech for her public speaking class.
Meaike, 17, who will graduate June 12, has created several new paths at NFA that are now main trails, with her goal of breaking down barriers that have separated students physically or socially from their peers.
Meaike joined the NFA Unified Club, which promotes activities with students with special needs. A dancer since she was 3 years old, Meaike asked why NFA has so many Unified activities, but not a Unified dance team. She started one. The team took off. The 15 members performed at the teachers vs. students basketball game in March, and last year, at Autism Awareness Night in April.
Meaike laughed at how the students enthusiastically jumped at the idea, at times setting aside the choreography and just “doing their own thing.” The audience of more than 200 people roared in approval.
This year, Meaike hooked the Unified Dance Team up with the NFA Dance Team and they performed to a full Slater Auditorium of 1,100 fellow students at the Slam Jam.
As she departs NFA, the Unified Dance Team is continuing down the path she paved. Katie Beit, NFA special education teacher and Unified Club co-advisor, said the Unified Dance Team hopes to perform at freshmen basketball games. Representatives from Special Olympics saw the video of one performance and urged NFA to create a Unified sports fitness club next year. Members will wear devices to track their steps.
“The beautiful thing Savanah recognizes is that everyone is doing their own thing to their own abilities and having great big smiles on their faces,” Beit said. “For me in my career, she’s just one of those special people. She walks into the room and everyone screams. She just wants it to be all about them, and because of that, she’s a star.”
Meaike’s other passion is pageants. She has been competing in pageants since she was 14, and in 2018 won the Connecticut National Miss Teen crown. She visited elementary school classes, read to young students and hoped to motivate them to take chances and be confident in the paths they had forged.
“You may think that if you aren’t like everyone else around you then you are inadequate, but really, you are special, you are different, and you are unique beyond measure,” Meaike said in her recent motivational speech. “All of those qualities are what makes someone fiercely independent, and fearlessly themselves.”
As she graduates high school, Meaike will put a twist in Emerson’s quote. She knows where she wants her untrodden path to end up and now must build the path to reach that goal.
Meaike wants to own a bridal and prom fashion boutique, preferably in Los Angeles, that would feature and promote Unified pageants and offer prom gowns at no cost to low-income teens. She wants to start her own pageant for people with special needs.
Meaike looked at a fashion school in California but found it “too limited,” with no sports or clubs. She will attend Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic and probably major in business and join Unified activities. She hopes to find a California school to continue her studies and work on her career goal.
Her father, Shawn Meaike, president of Family First Life insurance company in Uncasville, said Savannah worked in his office for a while. She told him: “This is hard,” but he said he is confident she will succeed in whatever she sets out to do.
“She has a strong entrepreneurial spirit,” her father said.
“I always told my kids, ‘if you put your mind to it, you can achieve it,’” Shawn Meaike said. “There’s areas where she’s strong and areas where she’s weak. I don’t doubt her, she can do it. Does it make me nervous as a dad? Sure. I wish she wouldn’t be 3,000 miles away. The concept is phenomenal, to have something for other people.”