Special-needs students graduate one step closer to independence

August 11, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Hannah Gonzales, 3, of Issaquah, walks through a balloon arch at the Kindering Center graduation in Bellevue. The event helped her celebrate her accomplishments there, including being able to walk with the use of her walker. By Chantelle Lusebrink

Hannah Gonzales, 3, of Issaquah, walks through a balloon arch at the Kindering Center graduation in Bellevue. The event helped her celebrate her accomplishments there, including being able to walk with the use of her walker. By Chantelle Lusebrink

With heads held high, more than 370 graduates uneasily stepped forward and made their way through a colorful balloon arch at Bellevue’s Crossroads Park Aug. 6.

Standing at little more than three feet and no older than 3, Kindering Center graduates of the class of 2009 took their first steps toward a new future. The day marked more than just the start of new adventures, but reminded their parents of how far they’d come.

“We are very proud of Hannah,” her mother Melissa Gonzales said during the ceremony, referring to her daughter. “She works so hard.”

Born with a congenital brain condition, Hannah’s future was anything but clear. However, at eight months old, Hannah’s doctor referred Melissa and her husband, Dominic Gonzales, to Kindering Center for early intervention.

“I was impressed by their services and felt Hannah needed to be here, it’s definitely worth the drive” from Issaquah to Bellevue, Melissa Gonzales said.

Established in 1962, Kindering Center is a nonprofit neurodevelopmental center for special-needs children and their families. It is the only center of its kind on the Eastside and one of the largest in the nation, said Joe Cunningham, senior development officer for the center.The center includes services for children who are disabled, medically fragile or have suffered from abuse or neglect.

But the program is more than just a school, said Mimi Siegel, the center’s executive director. It is a full-service center for the support of special-needs children and their families.

“We offer an umbrella of services, like speech services, physical therapy and special education programming,” Siegel said, referring to classroom programs.

For families like the Gonzaleses, who had no idea whether their child might walk, they watched their daughter walk through the balloon arch with her walker after a few short years in the center’s preschool.

“At eight months, when we started, she could barely move,” Melissa Gonzales said. “Now she can walk with her walker. She still doesn’t have speech, but she really does understand what is going on around her, and really understands what is going on in her preschool class.”

Hannah’s teachers agreed.

“She is an amazing kid,” said Wendy Harris, an educator at the center who taught Hannah. “She has this great sparkle in her eyes and connects with people. She also has this sense of determination that she is going to accomplish something.”

However, at Kindering, the mission is much larger than simply teaching children, Siegel said.

“We also offer family therapy, as having a child with special-needs is really an unexpected journey for most families,” she said.

The center’s employees provide home therapy services and counsel siblings of special needs children and families providing foster care for abused and neglected children.

The Benns, a family from Sammamish, found program services like home therapy to be the best environment for their daughter Claire, 2, to begin learning at just one month old, Greg Benn said.

“She has Prader-Willi syndrome, which is a genetic disorder,” he said. “It is basically a disorder where they have low muscle tone and she couldn’t eat. The doctor said she would have to be on a feeding tube and maybe even insert a G-tube in her stomach, which we didn’t want.”

Their doctor referred the family to the center and within three months of home occupational and nutrition therapy visits, they had removed Claire’s feeding tubes, he said.

“That was her first big success,” and they’ve kept coming, Greg Benn said.

Children with Claire’s diagnosis often have delayed mental and social development but through her therapies, Claire is able to attend school with other children and she functions at nearly the same level as her classmates. The Benns are still considering whether to enroll her in a special needs preschool or whether to enroll her with typically developing children in the public school system.

After the ceremony, parents and students celebrated with games and activities, including an inflatable bouncing area, face painting, obstacle courses, drumming and, of course, refreshments and cake.

Watching Claire run, play and laugh with friends and other students is something they might not have seen without the help of Kindering Center, Greg Benn said.

“I am a strong believer in early intervention,” Greg Benn said. “It can completely change the outcome.”

Though they worry about Claire’s future — as she will likely develop an insatiable appetite without the need for ingesting the amount of calories she’ll want to consume — the Benns said they are thankful for the skills and experiences they’ve had with the center.

“Once we were here, we saw success and we can see that Claire can make her own story and lead her own life without being defined by a textbook,” Greg Benn said.

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One Response to “Special-needs students graduate one step closer to independence”

  1. Michael J. Workman PT on August 12th, 2009 5:27 am

    What a great program and a heartwarming graduation! As a pediatric physical therapist I cannot overemphasize how much it helps to get the children enrolled and working in early intervention.

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