Category: Testimonials

Success Doesn’t Come Easy

Success Doesn’t Come Easy

From Employee of the Quarter to Assistant Manager, Larysha Mercer continues to prove her worth at Stage department store in Malvern, Arkansas. When Angel Overton became the new Store Manager, Larysha was in supervisor training. The District Manager saw it only a formality to move Larysha to Assistant Manager then. Angel stated, “She’s my right hand woman. By the time she got her code for alarms, she was ready.”

Asked about her new role, Larysha said, “What I always say – I love it! It’s not easy, but I like it. I enjoy it.” Larysha said the biggest issues are “having to resolve situations and telling people what to do and make sure they are doing it. Angel told me ‘You gotta learn to put your foot down. It’s not a popularity contest, not always going to like you’.”

Working with banking, deposits, the safe, payroll, scheduling, training, correspondence, solving problems and troubleshooting, Larysha has met the mark. Angel reported, “I mean she’s been a great success story. She’s had some difficult things to overcome to get where she’s at, but she’s done a great job. I said she would be good for the part and she is. She’s my support system. If I were allowed to give her more hours, she’d want them.”



Parent Testimonial

A Parent Shares~

Our son, Osvaldo, has been receiving services at First Step, Inc. since February 15, 2008. He is eleven years old now. His services have included day habilitation (pre-school), occupational, speech, and physical therapies and currently, school-based developmental treatment services. Osvaldo was born prematurely only weighing 3 pounds, 10 ounces at birth. His medical history is significant for RSV and ear infections. At the age of 3 months, he would make sounds and was weaned from the breast at 6 months of age. Due to complex medical reasons, he receives all of his meals via a feeding tube.

We would recommend First Step because it is a very good school for Osvaldo, and has access to the best resources available to help all children with disabilities. All of the staff are proactive in their treatment and provide everything necessary to meet the diverse developmental needs of the children. Also, every decision concerning Osvaldo’s treatment has been conveyed to us and meetings are held to discuss the best solutions.

We want to thank all of Osvaldo’s teachers, past and present, for their time and dedication to taking care of our son and for consulting with us on anything involving him. We want to thank his therapists for dedicating their patience to our son. Finally, we want to thank Ms. Alicia, First Step’s interpreter, for always being there for our son and us.


Osvaldo’s parents

Spanish Verison

Meet Raylan

Meet Raylan~

     Raylan is a courageous four-year-old boy who has been receiving Developmental Treatment services at First Step close to a year now. Upon entering our program, Raylan scores showed significant developmental delays across all areas of development. Raylan suffers from anxiety attacks, and does not separate easily, and needs to be calmed down using calming techniques such as a calm voice, hugs, and accommodations in his environment. Raylan is in a classroom that is warm and welcoming. He has built rapport with the environment and can feel safe which has allowed him to learn. We have used social stories to help him know what to expect from the environment and changes to his daily schedule like when his teacher will be out for the day. We also have provided picture schedules to help him transition from center to center. He has allowed for peers to assist him in doing activities and he also now is volunteering some to help others. With the multi-team approach from parents, teachers, and therapists Raylan has improved and is happy to come to school most days and has built peer relationships.

~Casey Gardner, Developmental Treatment Teacher, DT6A


A Teacher Shares

A Teacher Shares

Recently, I was visiting with a parent about her child being ready to transfer to an older classroom. I was remarking about how well she had accomplished toilet training and how her language had just started flourishing. Mom, Crystal, told me that Serenity has really blossomed at First Step. Crystal said, “Serenity has made really excellent progress at First Step. When she started, she couldn’t walk and was hardly talking.” Serenity couldn’t say any distinguishable words and cried often. Transition times were the most difficult. Instructors, coordinators, and therapists partnered with her family to encourage Serenity in her therapies and push her to reach important developmental milestones. They have all had a hand in helping Serenity make a successful journey from room to room and accomplishment to accomplishment over the years.

Today, Serenity is able to feed and help dress herself. She is able to communicate her needs and she is able to run and play with friends. She always has a smile and loves to listen to stories. However, with all her progress achieved, Serenity continues to need developmental and therapy services to progress her developmental skills further so that she will be ready to go to kindergarten in a few years with fewer supports than she would have without developmental services. With continued developmental services, Serenity will be ready to transition to kindergarten—independent and ready to learn all her school has to offer.

     ~Rhonda Pettit, DT4 Teacher in Fordyce


A Grandmother Writes

A Grandmother writes…

Tears spring to my eyes when I think of how much progress Avery has made, since entering First Step. She started at First Step after she was diagnosed with autism at three years old. Her problems included sensory issues, communication difficulties, and behavior problems.

   In the last two years, after very caring teachers, occupational therapy three times a week, speech therapy three times a week combined with high expectations, she has blossomed. She now smiles, laughs, greets everyone with a “Hi,” and sings happily through most of her day. But, the best part is that she is happy! First Step began by teaching her to make better eye contact, speak to everyone, and use walking feet.

   Her first classroom had to deal with some manipulative behaviors. Those were overcome with consistency and time. She thrived in a positive and nurturing environment at the school. Everyone seemed to know and speak to her. That provided her a way to practice through the consistent role modeling.

     The classroom she moved up to provided her with an environment more like kindergarten. She is required to sit at a table and circle time, which will provide practice for next year.

     I could write a page about each teacher she has encountered. First of all, they go above and beyond in every way. A big thank you to Ms. Tess, Ms. Julie, Ms. Paula, Ms. Tiffany, Ms. Amber and so many others from the directors to excellent class assistants. Some of her teachers have come to doctor appointments, gymnastics and her birthday party. They are always professional, friendly, amazing, and upbeat, but most of all they guide her to make good choices. This has offered opportunities for Avery to be successful, self-confident and happy.          

                                               ~Sheryl Morris, Avery’s Grandmother



Parent Talk


Our son has been going to First Step in Malvern since he was 2 1/2 months old and as you can see, he is a vibrant, full of life 5 year old. Everything has been so much harder for him but thanks to the wonderful and loving teachers and therapists, he is doing so many things independently now and still continuing to amaze us. Not only have they helped him learn and overcome all his obstacles, they have been such a support for us. The entire staff has been very supportive, helping us thru each step we have had to take, always reassuring and compassionate. This facility is a blessing to our family and this community.    

Shane & Sonya Ashley



An Angel Unaware by parent (Amy O Neal)

As many of you know I am the team captain for the First Step Walk for Children “Team All for Anna”.  I have received several emails wanting to know who was Anna.  I thought I would share a little about Anna for those of you who did not know her and what a difference First Step made in her life.

Anna was a full term baby, she came out screaming and never really quit… Anna did not meet milestones the way my son did so I knew there was something not quite right.  When she was 15 months old we were told that she had Cerebral Palsy or maybe borderline developmentally delayed.  Every time we would take her back to ACH they told us it was a little worse than they thought.  After many tears and a heart that was completely full with emotion we enrolled Anna in the Early Intervention Services with First Step.  This was in 1988 when First Step was one small building.  I sat in the hall for months and cried while the therapist worked with her.  I gradually adjusted and then it was time for preschool.  I am pretty sure that Pam Bland had to “make” me leave her in preschool where she stayed until she was 6 and then went to public school.

When Anna was 4 she was diagnosed with Epilepsy.  At that time she lost her ability to walk due to the severity of her seizures.  At the age of 7 she had 90% of her brain split in half to help control the seizures.  She learned to walk again at the age of 9.  Throughout Anna’s life she had many health problems, falls, stitches and surgeries.  A hysterectomy at the age of 15, a feeding tube due to an aortic blockage in her stomach at the age of 17  and that is when we were told that she did not have Cerebral Palsy.  As you can imagine working with the team at ACH every test you could imagine was performed to determine what was really her diagnosis.  It was determined that she had some sort of degenerative brain disease that was so rare that maybe she was maybe the only one to have it.

First Step gave not only Anna a new start when she was just 19 months old but also helped a new mom adjust to the new world of having a child with disabilities.  Anna began receiving Medicaid Waiver Services when she was 13 and continued to receive waiver until she passed away in April of 2011 at the age of 23.

Throughout her life I learned way more from her than she ever did from me.  My husband, my son and I were blessed that God chose us to care for this “Angel Unaware”.

Anna led me to the job I have today and I have felt her right along beside me every step of the way throughout all of our fund raisers for the Walk for children.  I thank First Step for role that it has played in Anna’s life and now I am “working” for Anna as well as all of the other clients that are truly “An Angel Unaware”!   I say what a way to pay it forward!



Testimony by Donya – mother of Ali who attends First Step
Testimony by Donya – mother of Ali who attends First Step

Calling all Runners and Walkers!!! Donya J. Catlett would like to invite you to be a part of a fun memorable charity (5K Run/Walk) event for her daughter Ali, who has Battens disease. She is 4 years old and attends First Step. The event will take place on Saturday, June 2nd at 5:30 PM. at Lake Hamilton High School parking lot. They need your help with… Sponsors, Volunteers for event, snacks, and timers/for runners. Any donation on Ali’s behalf would be appreciated. For more information please call Laikin at 501-318-7747 or e-mail him at or e-mail Donya at!! Let’s see if we can help this sweet little girl and her family with this dreadful disease! Thank you in advance

My daughter Ali is  4 1/2 years old and will be 5  on July 9th.  She was diagnosed with Battens Disease on July 15, 2011.

Battens disease is a rare, fatal, terminal, neurological disease for which there is currently no cure.  Battens is fatal, in that, it only affects children & robs them of their ability to walk, to talk, to see, eventually leaving them as a vegetable to die.  Children with this disease do not get to play sports or even live long enough to go to their senior prom.  There are 9 different variations of Battens disease.  She has Infantile form which is the most fatal.  The life expecteancy for Infantile is 8-11 years.

Early intervention is key when dealing with any disease.  Ali is blessed with a great team at First Step.  She gets speech, PT, & OT therapies.  She loves all her teachers and nurses and they love her too.  Our family is so thankful for the individualized help they give her every day.

This disease does not have to be fatal.  We have much HOPE & FAITH.

We are currently raising funds for research to find a CURE for ALi and other children affected with Battens Disease.  We need your help & we need your prayers.   There are many ways that you can help.  We are currently recruiting members for  ”Ali’s Team” to help in this fight.  If you are interested, please call me at 501-617-5617.  I can tell you different ways you can help or where contributions can be made to Ali’s fund.

Please help us spread awareness about Battens by telling others.  Our family would appreciate your prayers.

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.