'He really shows how much he cares for people'
CHAMPAIGN — Sophomore Luke Zola is on his route at Centennial High School, delivering snacks, gathering pop tops for charity, pushing his friend Zoie Irani in her chair to her next class — and anything else that would make somebody's life a little easier.
"He takes snacks, collects the mail, cleans the library, keeps the water bottle filled, anything that needs to get done," says special education teacher Deron Blood.
"He loves to work," says teacher Marian Wyatt, who is also his choir director. He's so eager to refill the water bubbler that she has to slow him down.
"Luke is wonderful. He really shows how much he cares for people by doing this work," Wyatt says.
Luke's health was endangered by an early childhood bout with pneumococcal meningitis.
He was in the hospital for weeks afterwards, says his mother, Susan Zola, Unit 4's assistant superintendent.
"At three months, he became very sick. We brought him home deaf and cognitively delayed," she said. "He still had pretty serious health issues."
People often wondered "what will become of a young man who can't read, write, speak," she said.
"We think he has had the ability to touch lives," she said.
A cochlear implant helps quite a bit. Luke has access to a broad range of receptive language, when other people are speaking, his mother said.
When he's with the choir, he signs and also sings.
Today, the choir is practicing "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Dona Nobis Pacem" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing," among others.
With short cropped hair and wearing a Chargers T-shirt, Luke smiles and pounds his chest to signal emotion or love, swinging his arm to the rhythm.
Wyatt notes there are several students in Functional Life Skills classes in the choir, performing alongside other students, pretty much blending in.
Susan Zola says her son is one of the guys at his high school.
"Centennial has done an amazing job of welcoming Luke," leading to success in classes, she said.
"People have always found a way to make him part of the school. It's a tribute to students of this generation that they see Luke in class as part of the normal experience of high school."
Susan Zola said the welcoming atmosphere has enriched Luke's life as he moves toward new challenges.
There's so much he can do.
Among Luke's activities outside school have been swimming, Challenger League baseball and horseback riding at Healing Horse Stables near Pesotum.
But what really gets him going is music, according to Luke's twin, Centennial junior Anne Zola.
She is protective of him, and has been since infancy.
"Anne has always had this sixth sense about how to calm him. In the bassinet together, when he was sick and crying, Anne would reach out and hold his hand," Susan Zola says.
Anne has often seen the fun, happy and engaged side of her twin.
She find its easy to communicate with him.
"I can understand 'Luke,'" she says, as others understand Spanish.
She's also a fan of her brother's deep connection with musical films like "Sister Act" and Disney films.
He knows them by heart, and cues the family in when a big number is coming up.
"He'll do a dance turn just before it happens on screen. He's always a beat ahead," Anne says.
Luke sings along with what he's watching.
"He's a lot of fun," his sister says.
Paraprofessional Cathy Strunk often accompanies Luke in Centennial's hallways. She said she enjoys his company.
"He's happy as long as he's busy," she said.