Montour High School senior Vinnie Castelucci is kindhearted and cool. He often has trouble expressing his feelings. He's good at swimming and creating art. He gets nervous around girls.
The last description is important to Vinnie, 18, who has almost always felt a little different.
His senior project this year focused on teaching classmates about autism and raising money for the preschool program for autistic children that he had attended.
Vinnie said everyone should be aware of autism and the differences people have.
"It's OK to be autistic, which means it's OK to be different," Vinnie said during an interview this week.
Like everyone else, he said, he sometimes feels scared, embarrassed or socially awkward. The difference is how he might react to those feelings.
"I don't know the right way to express myself," he said. "For example, like, I get nervous around girls, or sometimes I say something out loud in class when I shouldn't."
As part of his senior project, Vinnie collected and recycled cans from his neighbors and sold cookies to classmates, raising $443.34 for supplies for autistic students at The Watson Institute's LEAP Preschool in Sharpsburg.
To kick off National Autism Awareness Month, Vinnie sold 268 homemade cookies during a single lunch period on April 2. The blue-frosted cookies were shaped like puzzle pieces, the international symbol of autism awareness. Many students donated money beyond the 50-cent charge for a pack of cookies.
Each cookie bag came with Vinnie's blue brochure containing a summary of his project and facts about autism.
Vinnie, who said he's not shy, handed out additional copies in the cafeteria and told everyone, "Make sure you read those pamphlets."
His brochure explains that autism is a developmental disability that usually appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. It also notes that autism, which is more common in boys, affects individuals differently and to varying degrees and there is no single known cause.
Vinnie began showing signs of autism around the age of 17 months, and he was diagnosed at age 3. After attending the LEAP preschool from age 3 to 5 and being home-schooled, he entered the Montour School District in sixth grade.
High school special education teacher Rhonda Marasco said Vinnie has progressed from a life skills program to advanced courses held in typical classrooms with peers and learning support.
"What I love about my job most is seeing kids like Vinnie who have come so far in four years," Mrs. Marasco said. "His many abilities -- they outshine his disability."
Vinnie's teachers and principals chose him as student of the month in March, and the school board has invited him to present the results of his autism project during their meeting tonight.
One of Vinnie's happiest moments was being nominated captain of his swim team last summer at Chartiers Country Club in Robinson. He gave a speech at the swim banquet without using any notes and spoke from the heart, he said.
Although he was a little embarrassed to talk about it, Vinnie acknowledged that he was going to pick up a tuxedo this week for the prom. He plans to attend with a neighbor.
Vinnie lives in Robinson with his parents, Patti and Kevin, and his twin brothers, Beau and Brian, 19.
After graduation in June, he hopes to work at a local hospital as a patient escort and greeter.
"He's so good with people," Mrs. Castelucci said. "He just has the gift of gab and also an ear to listen."
Vinnie is not particularly looking forward to the change associated with leaving high school.
He said he is going to miss his friends, teachers and principals.
Turning to Mrs. Marasco, he added, "I'll miss you, too."
"I know," his teacher replied. "I'll miss you, too."neigh_west
Andrea Iglar, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.