Way to Go First Step! by Suzie Downen

Recently, I was invited to the Ardmore Complex for a Birthday Party for one of your clients and my relative. I was so impressed with their teamwork between staff and clients. I used to be the case manager there and really enjoyed visiting the staff and clients. The group appeared so happy and shared in responsibilities for party and clean-up. Had most enjoyable time. Smiles were everywhere. Kathy Betz should be very pleased. I know I was impressed with their most impressive respect of others. I left the party with such a great feeling and just wanted administration to know that On Our Own has a great Case Manager in Amanda Patrick. Her Direct Care Janie Smith has a great relationship with her clients as well. Way to go ladies!

A Story of One Man’s Triumph

On Monday, July 19, 2010, David Allen Williams began a new job.  It wasn’t just any new job, it was his first job.  Congratulations David, but why does this make the news?  “If you could have seen from where he came, you would be totally amazed!” said Brett Chancellor, Operations Director at First Step’s Petty Center in Malvern.  “When I first saw David, he was nonverbal, made no eye contact, and gave only minimal indications of his needs and wants.”

David, now 35, has a form of autism spectrum disorder, a term used to describe one of many different sensory disorders.  When an individual has trouble processing information received from one or more of his/her senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) he or she is said to have a sensory disorder.  Although autism is the most common and most pervasive sensory disorder, and the numbers of children diagnosed with autism is on the rise, little is known about its cause and treatment.  A person with autism may indeed be extremely intelligent, but something short circuits the information received by the brain and does not allow the brain center to process it accurately.

David’s story began in 1978, when he entered preschool at First Step’s Petty Center in Malvern.  “David came to us when he was about three years old,” said Linda Kemp, First Step Associate Executive Director.  Susan Smoke, another First Step staffer, remembered David’s early years, “He was a beautiful child with brown hair and big brown eyes.  He was nonverbal but very observant.  He would stand and watch the children play but was very tentative about joining in.”  David’s early classroom instructors were Jan Kirk and Hester Hopkins who spent a great deal of time with him, singing songs and teaching him to sign the ABC’s.  Even with regular speech therapy his instructors never heard David speak. First Step continued to serve David after he began public school.  His teacher, Martha Hurst, reported that he would walk around with his head down and his eyes narrowed to slits or closed altogether.  He did begin speaking in short phrases, but would only talk to certain people and kept to himself.  His family moved to Hot Springs and upon graduation, David was admitted to First Step’s Hot Springs Adult Development program and remained there for several years.  In 2003, his family moved to Bismarck and David transferred back to the Petty Center.  With the smaller adult population at the Malvern center, David began to open up and talk to more consumers and staff.  He became friends with another male consumer who did not talk much and was difficult to understand.  Staff observed them sitting together and laughing.

When David told Linda Kemp that he wanted to live in one of First Step’s adult apartments, she couldn’t believe her ears.  “I knew I needed a witness for this one,” said Kemp.  “Before I left to find someone, I told David that I was going to bring in a person to confirm what he had told me.  I told him to speak up and talk plainly so that the witness could understand what he was saying.  I came back with Debbie Meeks, Adult Development Supervisor.  I asked, ‘David, do you want to live in an apartment?’ He answered me loud and clear.  ‘“Yes,” he said, “I want to live in an apartment.”’

Chancellor remembers, “David had no social skills and was considered nonverbal.  After moving into the apartment, he stayed to himself.  When anyone entered, David would run to the bathroom and lock the door.  Once, when I was with him, David stayed locked in the bathroom for two hours, screaming incoherent words at the top of his lungs.  I finally talked him out, and he calmed down a little. That was a pretty tough one.”

Chancellor continued, “About a year ago, different staff members began commenting to me about the words they had heard David say.  Our maintenance staff even mentioned things he had said to them.  That’s when I began to take notice of the change in David.  I had never heard him say anything, and all these people were telling me what they had heard.  I’ll never forget the first time I heard David speak.  We had taken the group of adults to a local fast-food restaurant, and David was sitting next to me.  We had been there a while, and the group was having a great time.  Johnny Brown (not his real name) is the class clown.  He’s always having a good time and trying to make the others laugh.  Well, out of the blue, David turned to me and said ‘Johnny Brown’s gettin’ on my nerves.’  I just about passed out, but I held it together long enough to comment, ‘Well, he’s kind of getting on my nerves, too.’  At that point, I knew David’s life was changing in a major way, and that change was for the better.”

Just a few weeks ago, Chancellor was standing in the hall of the Petty Center’s adult development facility, “David came up to me and said, ‘I want a job.  Can you get me a job?’ I couldn’t imagine that was even a remote possibility, but I thought that if David wanted to work, we would find him a job.  We arranged for David to assist the janitorial staff at the center as part of First Step’s Supported Employment program.  When he heard the news, David was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to start to work. “

The weekend before David was to begin work, Chancellor and other staff took the group on a trip to Branson and the Silver Dollar City theme park.  While waiting in line at one of the rides, the operator turned and asked David, “Are you excited?” meaning, of course, about the prospects of the ride.  David said, “Yep. Got a job; start Monday.  I’m excited.”  That evening the group ate at a Branson restaurant.  Chancellor said he was prepared to order David’s meal for him, but when the server came to David, he looked up and said, “I want a rib eye, medium well, and a baked potato.”  “I couldn’t believe it,” said Chancellor.  “I just couldn’t believe it! That was more than we were prepared to spend, but I thought if David could order a rib eye, I was going to buy him a rib eye.

Now, we’re back to where this article started.  Chancellor said, “David started work this morning.  He’s part of our Supported Employment program, working as a janitor’s assistant at the Petty Center.  This first day, he’ll only work for an hour, we don’t want to overwhelm or stress him.   He’s got the vacuum, and he’s running it around the baseboards of our hall areas, zapping bugs and dust and such.  It’s a bright day here at the Petty Center!  One of the women in my office has been crying all day.” After a laugh, Chancellor said, “I may have to send her home; she’s so overjoyed with David’s success.  We’re all just amazed and thrilled.”  After starting his new job, David has shown progress almost daily.  He now speaks to just about every co-worker and others he meets in the hall and is engaging them in a meaningful conversation.    According to Chancellor, “He’s a long, long way from the boy who would not speak or even look at anyone.”

The life of David Allen Williams is not the only success story at First Step.  There are many others, but to be honest, not every story is one of such accomplishment.  Sometimes we have to look through many dark clouds to find one silver lining.  This is particularly true for a parent of a child with autism and for those involved in treating children with the disorder.  Some children respond quickly and easily; for others, it may take years for a bright spot to appear, and still for others … well, that bright spot has to be diligently sought, and every leaf has to be turned over and over until one learns to appreciate even the smallest accomplishments.  The therapists, teachers and staff at First Step are too well acquainted with the search for triumphs, but they are there.

First Step has recently opened the Ann and Nick Tillman Project for Children with Sensory Needs.  Teachers, therapists and other workers are trained in a variety of methods and approaches because what works for one may not work for another.  This is a cutting-edge project and is the brain child of First Step Executive Director Pam Bland.  According to Bland, “The Ann and Nick Tillman Project brings the latest in treatment for children with autism to our service communities.  Within a few months, this project will be implemented in all of First Step’s seven service centers.  This is the most up-to-date treatment for autistic children, and we are able to offer it right here in our own community.”

First Step’s motto is “Making a Difference in Your Community.”  First Step has lived up to this motto once again.

A Testimonial from Jill Houpt about Ellie

Eleanor “Ellie” Houpt
Mosaic Trisomy 18 (Edwards Syndrome)

“Ellie was diagnosed with Trisomy 18 when she was five days old, and we were told at that time to expect severe, if not profound, developmental disability. We contacted First Step and received prompt, personal, step-by-step assistance in enrolling Ellie in early intervention, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy at First Step in Hot Springs. She began receiving services at 3 months old, and we have been thrilled with every aspect of our time there! Ellie began full-time preschool at 18 months and graduated to Kindergarten in August 2010. Instead of sending her to public school, we were able to enroll her in the young school-age program at First Step, which provides an alternative educational setting for children who are unable to attend public school due to their disabilities. If Ellie had attended public school, she would have required full-time, one-on-one support from an aide to ensure her physical safety and sign-language interpretation to allow her to communicate. Thanks to the First Step School-Age program, I am able to concentrate on my full-time job during the day, because I know that Ellie is safe and happy in the caring, capable hands of the First Step staff.

When Ellie was diagnosed, we were told that she may never walk or talk, be able to care for herself or toilet train, and that she may never be able to communicate. Through many years of physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy, as well as special education in the classroom, Ellie has conquered most of these goals and continues to progress every day. I sincerely believe that the people of First Step do not simply go to work every day, but that they genuinely have love in their hearts for every child they treat.

Ellie has made remarkable progress far beyond what is expected for her condition for the following two reasons: 1) Ellie is a remarkable child, and 2) the support and encouragement she received from her teachers and therapists (and family) during her five years at First Step. Raising a child is never easy. Raising a child with a disabling condition is downright hard. First Step has consistently provided caring support that has enabled us not only to cope with disability, but to thrive in spite of it!”

A Heartfelt letter from Brett Chancellor

I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of you for your support of the First Step Walk.  All First Step causes I believe in and support.  But this particular event and the Tillman project strikes even a deeper sense of personal commitment and urgency.  Almost a decade ago, my wife and I had a child with Autism.  A child who did not speak, a child who was lagging on milestones, who had odd behaviors that we did not understand and my family found ourselves facing more questions than answers.  To understate it, we had quite a few dark days in the beginning.

As we started today, I thought about the similarities in our walk and raising a special child.  It was dark when we started but got a little brighter all along the way. Every step was difficult, some painful.  For every hill we climbed, we were met with another, and another and yet another.  There were times when I thought, “I can’t go another step, and one of my team (those with me and those driving by) would say, “come on, you can do it.”  Several times despite their belief, I was unsure.  But we made it.

This almost completely parallels what our families go through; dark days early on, but it gets better.  Difficult and even painful steps that have to be taken.  For every challenge met, another one ahead.  I think the greatest similarity and most important thing to think on is the team part.  I would have stopped long before my goal had my team mates not pushed.

To me that is the essence of what we are doing with The Walk/Tillman Project.  Pooling our efforts to provide that team that helps our families, take the steps, climb the hill, meet those goals.  Providing families with answers to those questions.  Providing people who make those darker days brighter.  Providing those who run along beside you and when you fall, say get up! Keep going!  And most importantly providing those who have the knowledge, skills and equipment to show you how to get up and keep going.

I mentioned earlier my son and our experience.  I have to tell you today, thanks to that team, which is only getting better!!!! We have a near teenager who talks, at times argues, really expressing himself well now.  It seems that the clothing we pick out is not longer agreed upon, which he voices well every day. It seems we have “discussions” on what time we need to go to bed.  It seems he asked to go to half a dozen places other than school every morning.  It seems things get a lot clearer for him and he seems to really understand when access to Nintendo DS or XBOX is in the balance.  We kayak, canoe, fish, ride four wheelers and sea doo(his favorite).  He packs his bags and calls his grandmother to come get himevery Friday night.

It would be less than honest for me to tell you that everything in our lives is without trouble, we still have obstacles, but who does not.  What I can without doubt tell you is we have many, many more good days, ………make that great days, than bad.  We are miles and miles down the road from those first early dark days I talked about.  Seems like a different child and family talking about it now.   Each and every member of that team we had, who made such a difference for us then, owns and helped make possible a little part of every great day we have today and for the rest of our lives.  Thank you all for taking the time to change our life.   Know that your efforts with Walk for the Children today will change the lives of many tomorrow.

After today’s walk, I’m headed home to recoup, I can’t help think of the words of that song, “I’m not as good as I once was but I’m as good once, as I ever was!!!!!!”

Thanks again for all your help!

First Step Artist’s work displayed in Washington, DC

Local Artist’s Self-portrait on display in washington, D.C.  – Exhibit Marks Anniversary for Disability Services

Matthew Phillips of Hot Springs is one of 70 artists whose self-portraits will be on display in Washington, D.C. during a special event on September 13 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ANCOR, the American Network of Community Options and Resources.  ANCOR was founded in 1970 as an association of organizations that support community integration for people with disabilities. The artworks will be on display during the invitation-only special event, being held at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

“This exhibit really brings the voices of people with disabilities into our celebration,” said ANCOR CEO Renee L. Pietrangelo.  “The remarkable energy, diversity and creativity of the pieces underscore the value of supporting community integration and self-expression for everyone, including individuals with disabilities.”

Also at the event, 22 individuals will be inducted into the ANCOR Foundation Legacy Leaders Circle, in recognition of their many years of service to the association and to the ideal of community supports and services.  “ANCOR is proud of these leaders, who have been at the forefront in making communities of choice a reality for people with disabilities,” said ANCOR CEO Renee L. Pietrangelo.  “And we’re especially pleased that the $30,000 raised by this class of inductees will support the professional development of the future leaders in our field.”

ANCOR is the national association representing more than 800 providers of community supports and services to more than 500,000 people with disabilities.  The association offers federal advocacy, professional and organizational development and access to innovation and best practices for and on behalf of its members.

Michael is a participant in First Step’s Art Ajar program that began in April 2008 as a means of providing a creative outlet for the adults served by the organization.  Through this program, local professional artists teach classes for interested consumers in the First Step Adult Development Program.  The group has displayed their work at Art in the Park, the Fine Arts Center and the Malco Theater.  They were invited to illustrate the publication, Natural State, a collection of 20 short stories from the Fine Arts Center’s “2009 Short Story competition.”  First Step serves individuals, birth through adulthood, with developmental delays and disabilities.  “Our organization is very proud of Matthew, and honored to have his work displayed in Washington, D.C”, said Joanne Mitchell, Art Ajar Coordinator   For more information about First Step, please call  (501) 624-6468.

Elijah Browning – Speech Therapy

We are writing this letter of appreciation to First Step, classroom 10, concerning our child, Elijah.

We just want to let you know how Elijah has progressed during the time we have had him. His speech is better. My husband and I can understand him better. He knows his ABC’s and numbers better as well as his colors. He is also catching onto word skills. He is listening to story time (I read to him every night).

We also noticed since he has been in First Step he has progressed tremendously in the few months that we have had him. We just want to thank the classroom 10 teachers and the school for keeping us up to date on Elijah’s progress. My husband and I wanted to give classroom 10 a pat on the back -WELL DONE – GOOD JOB – keep up the good work in being dedicated teachers and helping Elijah to grow.

– Mr. & Mrs. Browning

Cerebral Palsy: Robert & Skye Anderson

Robert and Skye Anderson
twins with Cerebral Palsy

I’m writing this letter to tell you about my 8-year-old twins with Cerebral Palsy.

My son, Robert is in the 3rd grade at Lake Hamilton Elementary. He walks with polio crutches and he is somewhat delayed. He is such a happy child and fun to be around.

When we moved to Hot Springs from Texas he was 3 years old. He could only combat crawl and had very limited speech. We enrolled him into First Step School and within one year, they had him walking in a walker. He could say all sorts of things. By the second year he was using polio crutches.

When he graduated from First Step, he was able to push his twin sister’s wheelchair across the stage.

My daughter, Skye, is severely disabled. She is still enrolled in First Step in their school age program. She has come a long way. The road this far has not been easy but with the help of First Step teachers, therapists and nurses, my family has been helped many many times.

I recommend to families all the time to get their children into First Step…they will never be sorry they did.

-Debra and Robert Anderson

Christopher Downie’s Progess Impressive

Dear Pam:

At this time we wish to express to our sincere thanks and gratitude for the caring support Mrs. Thomas, her staff and their aids have shown our son Christopher over the last 14 years.

In his second year with the older school age group, he appears to enjoy school and seems to be happy in his new surroundings. He is always in a pleasant mood when we pick him up in the afternoons and he is ready to go each morning. It is also seen in the faces of the other students when we arrive at school each day.

Chris’ progress in spelling and speech has been especially impressive. He continues to improve and we are happy with his achievements. “Mr. Mike” has done a great job with him this year. We realize how difficult it can be at times, but when they are faced with the everyday stress of handling the special needs of the children, your staff seems to react in a professional, caring manner.

As parents, we feel that we are truly blessed to have an organization such as First Step to come to our aid and provide the professional personnel facilities that are needed for our special children.

Again, thank you and your fine staff for the job they are doing at First Step. I’m sure I speak for the other parents as well, when we say we appreciate you and your organization.

– George and Linda Downie

Richard Holden’s Life with Down Syndrome

Richard is 29 this year.

When we started this journey with him, we had no idea where we were going or how we would get there. We are so thankful that First Step School has been there from the early days of in-home counseling to this day where Richard is living in his own apartment, a dream come true for all of us.

Down Syndrome had a stigma attached to it in the 70s but in our Hot Springs Community there is a facility in place that helped to erase the stigma and replace it with a life well lived by a young man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word.

We are also thankful that not only was First Step there for us but it has been there and has changed lives in countless families in our community through the years and in many, many surrounding communities. There is encouragement, support and cooperation through each phase of growth for every family and client who receives services through this facility. We have been recipients of far more than we can ever repay.

We continuously let others know of the services available through this marvelous place of hope. When we came to First Step it was housed in a 20 by 40 foot building. My, how it and its services have grown and advanced and the number of people served through all these years is an awesome witness to what people with vision can accomplish.

We are indebted to the Board, the Administration and the employees who have given so unselfishly so that Richard could live and work and grow old in his own community.

Richard will live beyond us and do that competently because of what has happened is his life through what he has been given by First Step.

Thanks First Step from hearts that overflow with gratitude and appreciation and love. Thanks First Step for including our family in your vision and plans and hopes. You have provided help and the people through out Central Arkansas continue to come and will continue to come for generations unknown.

Our love and continuous prayers on your behalf.

– Dick and Wanda Holden

Special Needs for Seth Plummer

I’m writing this letter in regards to my son, Seth Plummer.

He is currently in preschool in the main building at First Step. The care he gets is awesome. The ladies who work in this class are very special people. They treat my son and the other children as though they are their own children. They provide a calm environment that helps me as a parent, feel secure throughout the day in knowing he’s okay.

When Seth was first enrolled in First Step, I think it was more of a scary experience for me than him. It took him a while to adapt but the staff was always very open and sensitive to his needs. Due to a birth defect and frequent hospitalizations, he was behind in several areas.

The staff evaluated him and developed an individualized care plan. Then they sat down and discussed this with me. It took some time, but now Seth has met several of his goals and continues everyday to work toward others.

As a parent that comes to First Step on a daily basis, I’ve not only noticed my son’s improvement, but have noticed other children’s improvement also. I would like to say “thank you” for allowing my son the opportunity to attend this school. I also would like to say “thank you” to all the staff that has had interaction with my child and has helped him towards his goals.

– Emma Plummer