“Almost Twins” book helps highlight Homecoming on the Plains

October 5, 2021

Anna Moates and Anna Penland reading to a classroom of studentsAlmost Twins” is the new children’s book by fourth-year EAGLES student Anna Moates and COE early childhood education graduate and EAGLES WINGS mentor Anna Penland. The book was featured at several events during Homecoming festivities in Auburn. “Almost Twins” shows the friendship between the two authors, and demonstrates that while having a disability may make a person different, it can also add to their unique and “awesome” personality.

EAGLES is Auburn’s program for students with intellectual disabilities. Moates, who has Down syndrome, is a senior in the four-year program. She and Penland met at the program’s opening volunteer day and hit it off immediately. They noted of course that they had the same name, but that they also looked alike and had similar interests and values. Their friendship was born on the spot and has blossomed ever since.

On Friday of Homecoming week, the pair started the day early with a reading at Auburn’s Dean Road Elementary School. Setting up in Tammy Allison’s resource room for special education students, both Annas were identically dressed in white jeans and orange tops looking like, well, like twins. They visited with the students and then kicked off the reading in the festive, active classroom. Moates began on the first page by reading these words: “Hi. My name is Anna! I have a HUGE imagination. I was born with an extra chromosome, so I have something called Down syndrome.” The narrative goes on to follow the “almost twins” as they plan a surprise party, but along the way the book explains a lot about Down syndrome and disability acceptance in a way that is easily understood by children.

Following a raft of photos with the excited youngsters, the pair moved across the hall to the HAPIE Room, a peer modeling classroom that includes students both with and without disabilities. HAPIE is an acronym for Helping Auburn Preschoolers Intervening Early, and the class is led by teacher Ashley Callahan. Both she and Allison are Auburn COE grads.

Moates admitted to a case of nerves, but she didn’t let that show during the readings. Penland, meanwhile, is super animated with the children, a characteristic that befits her day job as a first grade teacher at Augusta Circle Elementary in Greenville, SC. The HAPIE reading was similar to the first, with Moates again explaining about Down syndrome, while Penland emphasized that the children could make their dreams come true regardless of disability. After sharing their own dreams and asking the Annas a variety of questions, the children posed for pictures, cheered for the authors, and sent them on their way.

Anna Penland and Anna Moates at book reading in classroom

Next on the busy day’s agenda was another morning reading, this time to two full classes of students at Loachapoka Elementary School, where Moates has served for the past two years as a volunteer. The event was carried remotely over a Zoom connection, and concluded with the Annas asking the students to raise their hands if they knew someone with Down syndrome. Many hands shot up as the authors took the opportunity to tell the students they could use their newfound knowledge of disability acceptance to become friends with people they had much in common with but who also had some differences. “Differences make us unique … and awesome!” Penland said in conclusion.

From grade school to grown-ups

On Friday afternoon, the “almost twins” greeted a very different crowd in a very different setting as they spent time with the EAGLES Engagement Council, a group of Auburn friends and alumni who support the program in a variety of ways. The setting was in the space outside the terrace rooms of the Auburn University Hotel and Conference Center, which was unusually busy with events related to Homecoming. As about 100 program supporters enjoyed elegant refreshments, they heard from first-year EAGLES student Gardner Lee. He thanked the council members for helping make it possible for him to be at Auburn, and assured potential students that “as an EAGLE, you will have the time of your life. I guarantee it!”

The group also heard from EAGLES director Betty Patten, founding Council president and longtime COE stalwart Joanne Hamrick Coggins, COE Dean Jeffrey Fairbrother, and finally from Moates and Penland themselves. The Annas read the intro to their book and shared how much their friendship has meant to them and to the program.

With almost all of the EAGLES students on hand, along with several friends and family members, the gathering was animated but people were also deeply moved by the Annas and their intertwining stories. COE Development Director Duante Stanton noted the generosity of the Council members and the many others whose support has enabled the program to thrive. In fact, a significant on-site donation that day enabled EAGLES to surpass the $1 million mark in external support raised, though Stanton said the program had miles to go to make the program available to all deserving students, which is his goal.

Meanwhile, outside the terrace rooms there was another book signing underway. The Annas visited with well-wishers from the gathering, but also with people passing by who just wanted to know more about their book and the EAGLES program. The authors greeted literally hundreds of people that day.

Council president Coggins was at the signing table. She graduated in 1975 as part of Auburn’s first-ever Special Education cohort and went on to begin her career teaching what was then called “behavior disorders” to children aged 5-13 at Birmingham’s Epic School.

“There were just five of us in Special Ed, but obviously the program has grown and thrived over the years with an excellent faculty,” she said. “Disability awareness has grown exponentially since those days. Employers are beginning to see, after years of underestimating them, that these students are capable of doing great work and helping to build and brand a business. Our role on the Engagement Council is to be supportive of our EAGLES students and the wider world of people with disabilities. We see through this program that young people can benefit no matter where they started in life, and I love seeing the way EAGLES has been integrated into the larger fabric of Auburn. It is truly unique. We are working to ensure that this program can be available to more and more students, which will just make Auburn and our larger communities stronger, better, and more awesome.”

Busy Friday, with more events through the weekend

On Saturday morning, the Annas returned to campus, this time at the entrance to the Auburn University Bookstore in Haley Center. Again, the authors were able to catch two distinct groups of book buyers: those who wandered by as part of the Auburn-Georgia State fan experience, and those who had come for the specific purpose of buying a book and visiting with the authors.

“Many people had seen news stories and social media posts about the book and just wanted to talk about it,” Penland said. “There were also several people who had ordered the book previously and came by for us to sign it. We had terrific support from Samantha Scott and her colleagues at the bookstore and we really appreciate them and everyone else who helped make this weekend possible.”

Again, the authors were dressed in matching outfits and had posters and pictures displayed. Fans from both schools bought books and visited. Many of the parents brought their children to the event, including several who had disabilities, and shared inspiring stories of their own.

After the hair-raising, last second win at Jordan-Hare, the Auburn authors got some sleep and picked up where they left off Saturday, this time at the Collegiate Hotel in downtown Auburn. Owner Kim Wirth, a family friend of Penland’s, accommodated a more laid-back signing which allowed the authors to connect more deeply and spend more time with their book buyers. Included in these visits were three separate children who had Down syndrome, one of whom told the Annas that she was their “biggest fan.”

“One of our favorite parts of these smaller events is hearing people’s stories and their personal connections to the book,” Penland said. “It has been amazing to encounter so many people with disabilities who see Anna as their role model. I think our friendship has inspired a lot of families and strengthened their hope for their child’s future.”

In addition to all of their pre-sales, the authors sold and signed more than 150 books at the various campus events. The book will continue to be sold at the Auburn University bookstore, and is available through Amazon as well.

Both of the Annas have a passion for their message that transcends book sales.

“Anna P. sees me far beyond my disability,” Moates said. “She looks into my heart for who I am. I want everyone to know that having a disability does not define you. It was beyond my wildest dream that I have seen younger children with Down syndrome come by the signings and be so excited about it and about us. That really made me want to cry!”

Penland agrees with her friend that it takes all kinds to make the world go round.

“Anna and I really just want everyone to know that it is okay to be different because that is what makes us who we are,” she said. “We all have things about us that make us unique and real friends must complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Anna having Down syndrome makes her really awesome. She has strengths and weaknesses just like I do, but she is confident and is always herself. She is a role model for all people — with or without disabilities — because she is genuinely her own person. We should let our differences encourage us that we can do spectacular things in this world!”