Julia, Chatham School

Julia

As a special education teacher, Kristen Hershey knew the support her daughter, Julia, needed to reach her full potential in school and to see her failing was heartbreaking.

She adopted Julia at age 5, after specifically requesting a child with Down syndrome. With her professional expertise, Kristen was an ideal parent for a child with disabilities. At first, a public school setting seemed the right choice for Julia. Then, the family moved, and Julia had to start over in a new district.

Almost immediately, problems arose, partly because of the challenges related to the transition, but there was more lurking beneath. Sadly, Julia began to regress. “She was having significant behavior issues, and they just were not able to help her,” said Kristen. “It got worse and worse.”

The school district agreed. They decided the best setting for Julia was an out-of-district placement in a private, special-needs school. Kristen was eager to explore ECLC’s Chatham school. “I knew the school because one of my former students transferred there and was doing really well,” she said.

Transition is especially difficult for children with special needs, and the intake was a challenge. However, ECLC seamlessly stepped up to the task.

“ECLC puts so much effort and work into nurturing the social-emotional part of learning. The teacher was able to manage her behaviors,” said Kristen.

After enrolling at ECLC, the support and specialized approach continued as it does for all students.

The benefit of ECLC is the ability to quickly adjust to students’ needs and to draw on five decades of experience working with students who have disabilities. “I gave them permission to keep her in the classroom to make sure that she felt safe, protected and loved. They understood. They got it.”

Whenever a problem cropped up, the teacher adjusted to accommodate her needs. Her Individualized Education Plan was updated to add a paraprofessional for one-on-one support. They recommended a communication device and that was put into place. At ECLC, she steadily progressed.

“She used to struggle with basic letter identification, and now she loves to read books,” said her mom.”She does her homework now, and before it was hard to get her to just hold a pencil. She is learning how to communicate, instead of having meltdowns. She is finding ways to tell us what she wants.”

Kristen now has peace of mind about Julia’s future. “At ECLC, she is forming real relationships, real connections with others. It’s such a wonderful community of people. It’s everything that she needs to be successful.”

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Vaughn, PRIDE Program

Vaughn

Phyllis Smith vividly remembers the evening many years ago that led her son Vaughn to ECLC.

At the time, Vaughn was 6 years old and attending the local public school. Phyllis went to a PTA meeting of parents with children in the special-education program to learn about options. She didn’t know anyone and was sitting alone, listening, when a mom stood up and spoke passionately about the importance of advocating for your child.

She said, “No one knows your child more than you do. Don’t ever let anyone tell you about your child.”

As the meeting was breaking up, the woman came over and introduced herself, and they exchanged phone numbers. It turned out her daughter was enrolled at ECLC’s Chatham school and was thriving. “I wasn’t happy with Vaughn’s situation and set up a meeting with the Child Study Team to discuss transferring him elsewhere. They agreed to let us visit ECLC.”

Phyllis remembers the warmth and understanding she immediately felt from the ECLC staff, and it moved her to tears. “I knew it was the right place for Vaughn.” And it was; at ECLC, Vaughn soared.

Fast forward to 2016, when Vaughn was graduating, and it was time to find an adult program. They worked with Community Personnel Services to look at options. “We visited a few other programs, and I didn’t see anything that would work for him.”

The PRIDE Program was the perfect fit. “Vaughn is like the mayor. He is very social and likes to talk with everyone. Going to PRIDE made it easier because he knew people there and already had his friends.”

Vaughn also sees friends and former classmates at the Diane Gagliardi Enrichment Program held in the evening at the Chatham school. “He’s like the Toys R Us kid. He doesn’t want to grow up! He just loves going back to his old school for the dances, movie nights and bingo.”

His favorite part of PRIDE is traveling into the community for activities and volunteering, which had to stop because of COVID-19. “Vaughn is really looking forward to when this is all over, and he can go back to being the ‘mayor.’ “

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Jada, Ho-Ho-Kus School

Jada

Jada Albasi, 17, socializes with classmates in a lunchtime Girls’ Group. She has won gold, silver and bronze medals running track events in Special Olympics. She is learning new job skills that might lead to working in a nursing home.

All of this is well beyond what her mom, Jodi Costa, thought possible when Jada was a small child. “I had hopes for Jada, but I didn’t want to put unrealistically high expectations on her and then have her heart broken,” she said. “It’s putting added pressure on a child that she doesn’t need.”

Jada was born legally blind, has scoliosis and cognitive impairments. At first her journey was difficult. After an early-intervention, preschool program, Jada enrolled in a special-needs school, and then briefly attended a public school, but neither program suited her special needs.

As the family searched for a new option, the ECLC school in Ho-Ho-Kus topped the list of programs to visit. Almost immediately, it just felt right. “They gave us everything we needed. They made us feel like we were at home,” said Jodi. “They made the transition easy for us. It was like joining a family.”

In the following years, Jada has flourished at ECLC. She even ran and won a seat on the Student Council in 2019. Her teacher says, “One of Jada’s favorite phrases is ‘There is nothing I can’t do,’ and she is absolutely right. Her level of commitment to achieve success never ceases to amaze me.” Her mom credits ECLC for Jada’s success. “They are people that you know and trust with your child. No matter what you ask for, they solve your problem,” said Jodi.

With the PRIDE Adult Day Program and supported-employment jobs available through Community Personnel Services, Jada can stay within the ECLC family for years to come and that brings comfort to her mom. “I see ECLC continuing to grow and evolve with the times, and Jada can be part of it,” said Jodi. “She could stay there for the rest of her life.”

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Brian, Community Personnel Services (CPS)

Brian

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020 and turned life upside down, many people lost their jobs or were furloughed, including Brian Grant, a client of ECLC’s affiliate Community Personnel Services.

Brian has worked part-time as a busboy and greeter at the Applebee’s in Kearny for the past four years. However, with indoor dining closed, his job was shut down, too. It would be nearly three months until Brian returned to work and reunited with what he calls his “second family.”

He was called back on June 22 and couldn’t wait to put on his uniform again. “I was excited to come back,” said Brian. “I was bored at home and missing work. I was really happy to come back.”

At the same time, he admits to being apprehensive about how the restaurant would operate differently because of COVID. Brian is fond of routine and is comforted by a feeling of security that comes from knowing what to expect.

He had to adjust to wearing a mask and explaining to guests that they also needed to put on a mask, before they could be seated in the new outdoor dining area, created in the adjacent parking lot.

A few guests bristled at being told to wear a mask, but they were willing to comply with an explanation from Brian. “When I told them why, then they understood,” said Brian. “Better safe than sorry!”

The transition went smoothly, explains Brian, with help from his manager and co-workers. Manager Francisco Albarran downplays any help Brian may have received. “I haven’t seen a change in Brian since COVID,” said Albarran. “He manages himself. He’s reliable and does everything that you want. He communicates with the guests really well. We are lucky to have him. He’s a model employee.”

Brian’s road to a successful job at Applebee’s began at ECLC’s SKIL (Seeking Knowledge for Independent Living) Program. In his final year at ECLC’s school in Ho-Ho-Kus, he “job sampled” at Valley Home Care and learned basic restaurant skills. After graduating in 2010, he worked elsewhere before finding this position.

“ECLC helped me get this job because I knew how to do the work already,” said Brian.”And, it’s close to my home, where I live.”ECLC is also where Brian met his longtime girlfriend Amanda, a classmate. She lives out of state, and the two have not seen each other since Christmas 2019. Plans to visit over the summer were derailed by the pandemic. But they text and call each other, every day.

Brian is also in touch, although not every day, with his job coach Nancy Ferns, who provides him with support as needed. When Tropical Storm Isaias churned through New Jersey in August, Brian reached out to Nancy about taking days off and was assured this latest upheaval would be temporary and brief. “Whatever he needs,” said Nancy. “I am here for him. We are all in this together.”

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Ethan, Ho-Ho-Kus School

Dear Principal Lindorff and staff,

Ethan

Aside from illness, finding out your child has a disability is unsettling and worrisome. Having worked with special needs children most of your life, we know you and your staff understand the life long challenges we face as parents, and the sense of helplessness, as we navigate through a world, where sadly, disabled people are still discriminated against in many ways, and research for help and cures can be scarce.

Our son Ethan, who has moderate to severe autism, started at ECLC on Monday, April 17th, at the tender age of 5. Twenty years from now, we will remember this day, because our sweet boy had a bounce in his step, a smile on his face, and jumped out of bed that morning running to the kitchen to grab the ECLC magnet he got at his intake. It also marked a moment in this journey for us as parents to do what is best for Ethan, not what is perceived by society or others as best. Ethan being in a special needs school, surrounded by the tools and resources that he needs, is what is ideal for Ethan to soar and learn. We only wish at three, when early intervention ended, we would have listened to our team at EI that a special needs school would be best for Ethan.

In the few short weeks, Ethan has been at ECLC, we have seen many positive changes in his behaviors, personality, sleep, dietary and sensory needs. He used to engage in a lot of spinning. Now that he is getting the sensory breaks and input during the school day, he does not need to engage in spinning aimlessly or opening and closing doors repetitively for long periods of time.

Ethan is immersed with his peers in the classroom, something Teacher Kevin Carney fosters with all the children through team building exercises, group activities and projects. Through scripting, Ethan will talk about other children he engages with during the day. At times, we see functional language where he will say “my friend.” It melted my heart last week when he told me “you play with Ruby, and Daniel.”

It is comforting to know that he is no longer isolated, as Ethan has been in the past when typical children, for example, would be playing super-hero characters, something Ethan had no understanding of. As a parent, there is no greater joy then having your child come home, knowing they are engaging with the other children, in ways you thought were not possible.

Ethan has been able to take walks at school, which helps him understand the world around him. It also helps with his disability, as he is rigid, inflexible and does not like change. The varied activities and sensory breaks help Ethan become more flexible and is beneficial to our son long term. Your SCERTS model has been very beneficial to Ethan, from what his one to one aid explained, and no doubt will continue to help Ethan. He has now requested walks at home, a tunnel to play in, which is great for health and exercise, especially considering childhood obesity and diabetes is on the rise. Being more active at school has been contagious. He will even say, “You want to sweat.” We are grateful for the active lifestyle he is having each day.

Because Ethan is immersed in the classroom, he is now taking in his environment. Since starting at ECLC Ethan has shown interest in trying other foods. Two new foods have been added to the list. There was no long food program needed, he learned through observation and being part of the lunch group. Ethan is now eating chicken, which we are overjoyed about because Ethan’s only source of protein was eggs and yellow cheese. He sees the other children eating different foods and it is building tolerance and an openness to change.

The academic rigor, visual aids, varied courses from health education to social studies are helping Ethan become cognizant that a world exists outside of just numbers (math), letters, and stimming. A credit to his teacher, but he is starting to distinguish between objects and people, something prior to April 17th he did not care to do so. He would say things like “the moon will eat French toast.” He is starting to understand the moon is an object, like the planters he made that were filled with soil to grow peppers. Kevin Carney just doesn’t talk about it, he does it. That is how a special needs child needs to learn, at least our child, by doing. Ethan has a difficult time learning by talking about something, such as how peppers grow. Seeing it, doing it, has a much more lasting effect and more likelihood that he understands it.

The schedule is almost “special ordered” for our son. With gym four days a week, his head hits the pillow, and he is asleep. No more procrastinating at night, asking for water 10 times, getting out of bed, he is asleep by eight because he has a had a full day physically, socially, and academically. But, the real testament to ECLC comes from Ethan this past weekend as he said to my husband and I, “you go to ECLC on ‘S’ days” meaning Saturday and Sundays!

You and your warmhearted and kind staff (Assistant Principal Steve Collins, LDTC Peggy Walsh, Behaviorist Matt Kuzdral, LD teacher Kevin Carney, Nurse Elizabeth Horgan, and several other staff members), have embraced Ethan and are taking the time to evaluate him, so going forward you can provide all the services that he needs to develop and grow. There is such a comfort in knowing that every day when we send Ethan to ECLC, he is amongst people who are compassionate about children.

Thank you does not do justice for all you will do for our son, for all you have done to build a school that is just that … a school. A school that offers everything that any other school would have for children, and why not? These children deserve the best too! They deserve activities, a dance, school trips, spirit and pizza days, a newsletter, an art show, sensory rooms, grandparent days, horse therapy, sports, bowling, and all the aids and resources they need to grow and learn, while getting their right of passages as a child up through adolescence. Not too many places offer all this. We feel blessed and fortunate that our son is part of ECLC.

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Sammi, Chatham School

Sammi

Sammi attended ECLC’s Chatham school. She was a standout athlete, playing soccer, basketball and softball. Off the playing field, she gained the confidence and work skills needed to succeed as an adult. Through the schools’ intensive Transition Program, students learn appropriate work habits (the soft skills) and sample jobs to see what they might enjoy and is a good fit.

When Sammi graduated, she dreamed of working in child care. She applied for a job at a center near her home and landed the position! Her happy mom, Colleen, says, “Sam is doing great at her new job. She got it all on her own! We sat in the car and waited for her, and she went in on her own — interviewed, asked questions, orientation and the first day! I will forever be grateful to the school, staff and Foundation for creating and running such an amazing family that we have become a part of. You have changed her life and ours, and we can’t thank you enough! Having her attend ECLC was the best decision we ever made.”

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Megan, PRIDE

Megan

When Megan T. talks about the PRIDE program, she calls it “college.” And, for Megan, it has many of the same components. “She has the socialization at PRIDE, plus the training,” says her mom, Geraldine. “She has friends that she could have made no place else.”

But, in addition to that warmth and community with peers, Megan is progressing in learning life skills. “She makes her own bed, gets her money ready at night, chooses her clothes for the next day and takes [NJ Transit’s] Access Link, which helps make her feel very independent,” says mom. “She seems much more independent and doing more things for herself. It’s really helping her to live more on her own.”

When Megan graduated from ECLC’s Chatham campus, her parents visited a number of day programs looking for the right placement. What they saw wasn’t suitable for Megan, who has Down syndrome. “They weren’t the right fit for Megan,” says her mom.

The PRIDE community extends to parents as well, which Geraldine truly appreciates. Parents get a chance to meet and speak with staff at monthly group meetings. “It’s really helpful for all of us parents—we’re in the same boat and it’s good to have that support,” she says. “I can’t say enough good things about the program; it makes me feel fantastic.”

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Sylvia, PRIDE

Sylvia

Sylvia is up at 5 a.m., without the jarring jangle of an alarm clock. By 7 a.m., she is eagerly awaiting the bus to travel to ECLC’s PRIDE program in Chatham. The problem, says mom Mireya, is that her bus isn’t scheduled to come until 8:30 a.m. “She is just so excited to go,” says Mireya. “I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t find ECLC. It has changed her life and all of our lives.”

Sylvia found a home at ECLC in her teens, after graduating from junior high school. Navigating the academic and social swirl of middle school seemed like a plunge through white-water rapids for Sylvia, who is classified with a neurological handicap.

“She was unhappy with school and didn’t want to go,” remembers her mother. When she graduated, the next placement was the local high school, which was among the largest in the state. For Sylvia that was as inviting as diving into Niagara Falls. Her parents began to explore other options, and one educator suggested ECLC’s school in Chatham. The day of their visit happened to be International Day. “We walked in and saw the Cuban flag up on the auditorium’s stage,” said mom, who is Cuban. “It was like a sign of home. I thought this is it. It was magical. From that day on, her life changed 180 degrees.”

Sylvia was buoyed by the winds of success at ECLC. She made friends, succeeded in her academics and progressed tremendously in everyday life skills. Suddenly, she could do little things like order ice cream at the store and chat on the telephone with new friends.

After ECLC, Sylvia attended the three-year, Vocational Independence Program at the New York Institute of Technology in Central Islip. “That’s how much she had progressed,” says Mireya, “to be able to live by herself in a dorm room.” She successfully graduated and returned home, but then her health issues escalated. The ensuing years saw Sylvia drifting again, as the family tried to find an appropriate setting. “I saw that there was no hope for working between her deteriorating health and the economy,” said Mireya.

Finally, ECLC provided the answer. The PRIDE program was starting, and there were openings for clients exactly like Sylvia. “We had looked at other centers and the clients were older and severely disabled,” said Mireya. “We knew Sylvia wouldn’t fit in and would be depressed.”

At PRIDE, Sylvia has found another home. “It’s like walking into Cheers. Everybody knows her, and she knows everybody,” said Mireya. “She likes the variety of the book club to bowling to vacuuming to volunteer work. There is no other place that she would feel so at ease, and I would feel so much at ease.”

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