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A Network of Support

by Jennifer L. Nelson

There’s good news: For South Jersey families with special needs children, help is all around.

When it comes to South Jersey, the region is rife with resources for families, from educational to recreational. For families of a child with special needs, the even better news is that the area is home to no shortage of programs that offer them the guidance and help they need, from financial assistance and health care resources to special education and recreational programs.

Though their offerings may span a wide range of services, from health care diagnoses and treatments to specialized elementary school programs, the goal of any special-needs organization in South Jersey is the same: to lend a helping hand to parents, and all while allowing their children the opportunity to thrive—and enjoy their time just to be kids.

A focus on the mind
At educational institutions like the Y.A.L.E. School in Cherry Hill, for example, children who are dealing with social, emotional, neurological, behavioral and learning disabilities can find a supportive environment that will help them reach their ultimate potential. The school offers evidence-based special education services to students ranging from 3 to 21 years of age, with a variety of programs spanning eight campuses throughout southern and central New Jersey.

According to Karen Huber, admissions and clinical services coordinator at the Y.A.L.E. School’s Cherry Hill campus, the compassionate, highly qualified educators and professionals who work with families utilize intervention strategies that are based upon years of research. “Families whose children attend Y.A.L.E. School tell us that for the first time, they feel like their child is understood and valued,” she says. “Children only get one childhood; we have a relatively small window of time in order to make a lifetime of impact.”

Of course, for special needs families, matching their child with an appropriate school or educational program is only part of the battle. Parents who embark on a search for the medical services their child needs—from proper diagnoses to treatments—can often be met with a confusing, tangled web of opinions and options from a string of primary doctors, specialists and other providers. “Traditionally, an individual or their family will find themselves in a situation where most health care providers are unfamiliar or uncomfortable assessing or treating [their child], or they’ll find that specialists with expertise in assessing and treating those with special needs are in short supply or constrained by institutional or hospital settings,” explains Dr. Mark Mintz, president, CEO, and founder of The Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health (CNNH) and the Clinical Research Center of New Jersey (CRCNJ) in Gibbsboro.

And that’s precisely why CNNH was formed: to help families avoid having to subject their child to fragmented and disjointed care. Instead, they can make one phone call and have access to a team of experts trained and experienced in childhood neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders all within one facility. The center serves as an innovative patient- and family-centered “specialty care medical home,” with hard-to-find services provided in office, school, home and community environments to help treat and manage symptoms related to autism spectrum disorders, epilepsy, ADHD, learning disabilities, injuries, and neuropsychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “There’s a paucity of providers who are trained in dealing with children who have special needs. Many are based within impersonal hospital systems that create barriers for families seeking a community-based provider of extensive services,” Mintz adds. “Navigating the maze of health care and educational services and organizations can be daunting and frustrating, so at CNNH, our social workers and family advocates are here to help families understand the services they are entitled to, and to access care.”

For most families, the best time to access those resources is sooner rather than later. According to Dr. Kathleen McCabe-Odri, co-founder of Partners in Learning, Inc. in Williamstown, research clearly supports the importance of intensive intervention, especially when a child’s diagnosis is on the autism spectrum—and parents should always be proactive when it comes to seeking out intervention services that can help ensure their child is off to the best possible start. “Getting help early enough is a challenge for families. It’s hard to find programs that will address home and educational needs,” she explains.

With services provided at two locations, Country Acres Private Preschool in Williamstown and Cherrywood Academy and Private Preschool in Gloucester Township, Partners in Learning, Inc. provides children with language and behavioral disorders, primarily on the autism spectrum, with effective and intensive intervention services using scientific strategies and applied behavior analysis (ABA) in non-clinical settings—such as within a child’s home or one of its two early childhood preschools. The schools’ inclusive education model allows the majority of students, McCabe says, to ultimately transition into their neighborhood public schools.

Building skills for life
But for many, the resources available are about more than just helping parents connect with professionals who can properly diagnose, treat, or educate their child; it’s about helping them to overcome their personal obstacles and lead fuller, happier lives.

For Partners in Learning, Inc., for example, children not only receive assistance in building pre-academic and academic skills, but in life lessons such as the importance of becoming more involved within one’s community. “We support our students with participation in athletic activities as well as other things that could be challenging for them, such as haircuts, dentist appointments, and even religious activities that are important to the family.”

Athletic opportunities are more plentiful than one might think, and just one example is the Vineland Sled Stars Team, which plays at the Hollydell Ice Arena in Sewell and competes in games up and down the East Coast. Team manager Kathy Shelton and husband, Ken, formed the team in 2001, and since then it has provided countless children with physical handicaps and disabilities the chance to participate in the excitement and camaraderie of sports. Many of the athletes, who range in age from 7 to their early 20s, have cerebral palsy, while others suffered sports injuries that rendered them incapable of playing traditional hockey.

“How often do parents with a child with a physical disability get to go out and cheer for their son or daughter at a sporting event? You may not be able to play soccer from a wheelchair, but this is a real sport … and it’s unbelievable to see the independence and self-esteem and camaraderie and humanity from these kids on the ice,” says Lisa Oates, of Mullica Hill, assistant team manager for the Vineland Sled Stars.

Her daughter, Patricia, started playing on the team in 2006 and is now 13 years old. “As a parent, I can see that the team is now our second family and we have become that source of information and encouragement for each other,” she says. “Reaching out to other families and participating in something like this can be a real commitment, but it’s worth every minute of your time.”

Click here for a list of resources in Here to Help.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 4 (June, 2013).
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