Growing up in Lititz, JJ Vulopas knew it was important to let his classmates and teachers know about his life-threatening food allergies. But he felt like that widespread knowledge defined him.
“People really only knew me as JJ who can't drink milk or eat nuts,” Vulopas says. “They didn’t know me based on all the things I could do.”
So, while Vulopas was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he penned the children’s book “The Land of Not.” In the Land of Not, people are judged by their limitations; in the Land of Can, they’re defined by what they can do.
He already had plans to continue the idea through a book about “The Class That Can,” a fictional classroom led by an encouraging teacher named Mrs. Can. The planned focus: how to stay healthy, with input from veteran pediatricians Dr. Ruchi Gupta and Dr. Kenneth Fox.
Then, in March, when he realized the coronavirus pandemic was sending students home for virtual learning, he recognized an opportunity to help explain the scary situation to young children.
Vulopas’ latest release is “The Class that Can: Coronavirus.” In the children's book, the Class That Can asks Gupta and Fox questions during an online learning class. Vulopas says he and his team gathered questions from 30 children of diverse backgrounds. He co-wrote the book with Chicago eighth grader Riya Gupta, daughter of the aforementioned pediatrician, who Vulopas said provided valuable perspective.
“As much as you think you’re in tune with people younger than you, there’s always someone younger than you that’s more in tune than you are,” Vulopas says.
A grant from Northwestern University and its Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research makes digital copies available to teachers nationwide, as well as libraries and school systems who request it. And for every physical book purchased, Vulopas says a copy will be donated to an underserved area.
Vulopas, 22, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania last year. He now works in finance in New York City, but is quarantining with his parents in Lititz. He says his parents’ experiences as teachers — as well as the “wonderful teachers” he had in the Warwick school system — inspired him to educate young people in his own way.
“Coronavirus is affecting all of us,” Vulopas says. “It’s certainly affecting our kids. There was no all-in-one resource that was addressing all of these questions that we knew kids had.”
Those questions range from specific queries like “What is a virus?” to bigger questions like “Will we ever go back to normal again?”
The book’s tone is approachable and positive. The goal, Vulopas says, was to educate children about the coronavirus in a way that doesn’t scare them, but fully captures the seriousness of the situation.
“Viruses don’t have hands, and we have hands and we can use them,” the book reads.
“The Class that Can: Coronavirus” has several Lancaster County connections, aside from Vulopas’ background. The book was printed by Landisville company Yurchak Printing and illustrated by Lititz artist Bill Dussinger.
“He draws characters kind of whimsically, in a comic-like style ... but it’s almost grounded in reality,” Vulopas says. “You actually grow attached to these characters, even though they’re cartoony, you start to feel like they’re real.”
And for Vulopas, there’s nothing more real that connecting with the place he grew up.
“I feel like a product of Lancaster County, and I want to make sure I’m stamping this thing with Lancaster as much as I can,” Vulopas says.