HOLDEN, Mass. — As local parents endeavor to do what's best for the education of their special needs children, the Wachusett Regional School District SEPAC continues to offer an important network of support and resources to help them navigate the available opportunities and cope with the challenges they face everyday.
Currently, the school district has 1,100 kids that have some form of special needs.
While families may at first try deal with it alone, Jennifer Kremer, SEPAC's family activities director, explained that when they realize there are people they can network with and get support from, "it changes the whole picture."
"I think it's vital," said Kremer. "When you have a child with special needs, you're dealing with all the challenges — emotional, physical... everything — and you're kind of at a loss. Networking with other families that are going through the same thing, and have been there and have the resources and experience, I think makes your relationship with the school and with your child a very positive experience."
"I've got a number of calls just recently from parents who have pre-schools who have just been diagnosed," related Stacey Jackson, who sits on the WRSD School Committee and serves as a liaison to SEPAC. "For a parent to hear that their child has autism is hard, but to be able to network with other families who have been down that path, and who can tell you 'here's the neuro-psychologist you want to see, here are financial resources that are available, here's how to navigate the insurance system,' — it really makes a big difference to know you're not on this path alone."
The volunteer organization is made up of parents and guardians in the school district who have a child with special needs, as well as community members with an interest in special education.
By providing resources, workshops and connections to both parents and professionals, the organization helps parents be more effective advocates for their children's education.
Since getting involved, Kremer said she was much better for it.
"One of the things I really like is the educational component," said Kremer. "A lot of it is learning the tools that are available to take better care of your child, and your family, too."
For instance, in addition to workshops that focus on special needs children, SEPAC will offer a workshop that considers the siblings, "because there is a big impact on them, too."
In order to accomplish their goals, SEPAC has taken a collaborative approach with the school district, rather than the adversarial relationship that had existed in the past.
"I think we're able to benefit the mass majority of kids working in a collaborative relationship," said Kremer.
Moreover, with Jackson and Julie Kelley on the School Committee, for instance, the SEPAC is able to have voice in the district and guidance on how to work with the school department.
"The SEPAC will take big picture issues and then work collaboratively with the district," said Jackson.
The officers of SEPAC meet monthly with the Special Ed staff, working together to share ideas about "anything from summer programming to collaborative services," said Jackson.
Moreover, now the district has been coming to SEPAC as a resource.
Recently, Siobhan Dennis, assistant principal of the Glenwood School, approached the organization with the idea of coming up with a disability awareness curriculum to educate peers in the classroom of the challenges that many special needs children face.
"She reached out to us to share ideas, which is the perfect relationship," said Jackson. "She values us as parents, and parents who know a lot of other parents who have the background, and her working as an administrator and knowing what can and can't be done in the school."
While years ago, many special needs kids were in a separate classroom, research has shown that with more inclusion not only do they get role models, but the other kids gain a greater awareness of special needs and learn how to see past the differences.
"It's win win," said Kremer. "It's important if we can get them when they're young, because at the middle school and high school it's tough enough as it is, so if you have other things that make you stand out more it can be a real struggle for some of these kids."
While most of SEPAC's workshops make use of free speakers and district staff who offer their time "out of the goodness of their heart," said Jackson, SEPAC has undertaken a fundraising initiative to help further support their efforts.
Sending out invitations to local businesses, SEPAC hopes to raise money to better educate families to be "better able to give their children the support they need so that they can be functioning members of the community."
SEPAC also holds its annual Wind Beneath Your Wings awards, which honors the many dedicated teachers, administrators, physical therapists and other individuals in the Wachusett District for their outstanding contribution in the lives of children with special needs.
Last year, 77 were nominated by district parents to receive awards.
"We started that a couple years ago, and its been so well received," said Jackson. "It's wonderful to be able to say thank you to all these staff members that work so hard for our kids."
Additionally, the group has a very active email network, with a Yahoo group listserv for parents to join. (groups.yahoo.com/group/WRSDSEPAC
"Parents can write in and say hey does anyone know a good place to take my kids for dance lessons where they would be receptive to his or her special needs, or does anyone know a good pediatrician that gets gluten-free diets," said Jackson.
The information sharing also allows SEPAC to promote its own workshops, as well as the many other conferences and workshops that people might not know about.
"There's a lot of resources in the Boston area and the outskirts," added Kremer, "and the more families around here want to pursue those resources, the more we can bring some of those things out here into Central Mass."