[Part 3] A Conversation with Jon: Reflecting on the Past and Looking to the Future

jonOn April 22nd, we celebrated 100 Years of Service at Easterseals. A milestone I am incredibly proud to be part of in our century-long history.

Easterseals has always been an organization that sees the world differently. When Edgar Allen founded Easterseals in 1919, he didn’t know that the organization would still be changing lives – one person, one family at a time – 100 years later.

Edgar AllenWhat he did know was that it was WRONG to hide children who were “crippled” or different in hospital wards. He knew that each of these individuals could contribute to society and make it better. That they deserved to be included. So he created Easterseals. It could have failed – the public that feared individuals with disabilities could have shunned him.

Instead, he took a risk and established an organization that evolves every day to create a hopeful, INCLUSIVE community where ALL individuals realize their potential and live MEANINGFUL lives.  Edgar Allen led a revolution.

Silver SpringToday, we are one of 71 affiliates across the country providing life-changing services to people of all ages with disabilities, special needs, military backgrounds, and their families in our communities.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series, we discussed how our services allow children with and without disabilities to thrive in their classrooms, help adults with disabilities live a more dignified life and provide veterans and military families facing challenges find a way back to better.

Our support of the individuals and families we serve is not only about providing a service but reflects our commitment to creating hopeful, inclusive communities where all people have the opportunity to achieve their potential and live meaningful lives.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll dive deeper into how the Easterseals’ vision is creating a better society where everyone in our community is 100 percent included in the next century.

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Q: What does creating an inclusive community mean for Easterseals?

Creating an inclusive community simply means integrating people with disabilities and special needs, including veterans and military families, in the broader community, so that we can be a stronger community together. It’s about making sure EVERYBODY has the same opportunities and access to resources they need to participate in all aspects of life to the best of their abilities.

Q: Why is that important? 

Inclusive communities are important to Easterseals and our society because everybody has the right to live, learn, work and play in their communities. It is about creating a real sense of equality for people of all abilities.

DSC_0113We also believe that a critical time for us to learn the importance of inclusion starts at a young age when children are taught social norms. For us, teaching children with and without disabilities in an inclusive classroom setting provides invaluable learning, healthy socialization and growth for all children.

Children with disabilities get the opportunity to learn alongside their classmates and friends rather than in separate classrooms. Typically developing children get the opportunity to learn the value of empathy and diversity, lessons they can carry with them the rest of their lives.

Since a big part of our program is to ensure that kids are prepared for school by the time they are 5-years old, we value the great feedback we receive from kindergarten teachers who tell us that children from Easterseals show impressive social and emotional development— like sitting still during circle time, waiting their turn and showing empathy for other classmates. We attribute all that to our inclusive environment.

Furthermore, inclusion helps children with special needs to achieve the best results. For example, just this week we received this note below from a mom of a child with autism who attends our Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Child Development Center in D.C.: “I am REALLY thrilled with this and with all of Beck’s progress. Honestly, there is no way to thank you all for everything you have done for him and his future. But I will say THANK YOU anyway.”

file-35This came about because the parent had a recent meeting with the public schools to review their recommendations when the child graduates from Easterseals at the end of the summer. When her son (who has Autism) was initially evaluated 2 years ago by the school system, they recommended that he be placed in a self-contained (all special education) classroom with 4 hours of speech therapy a month.  The schools indicated that Beck’s “adaptive, cognitive, social and communication skills were delayed to the extent that they recommended a small classroom size with a small student-to-teacher ratio and an adapted or modified curriculum.

The family turned down that school’s classroom placement and enrolled their son in Easterseals instead where he was placed in a classroom with typically-developing children and receiving services from our early intervention team.

Now, he is a very different child.  He participates independently in daily routines, has great communication skills and most importantly, he has a lot of friends.

After coming to observe and evaluate Beck recently, the school system modified their recommendation and are now recommending a general education classroom with limited special education support and just 2 hours of speech therapy a month.

Q: In addition to inclusion, what role does innovation play in helping Easterseals decide how best to serve its community?

Innovation is one of our core values and it is actually critical to the success of any organization. For Easterseals, we started 100 years ago serving “crippled children” and for many are best known as providing therapy for children who had been disabled by polio. That disease has since been eradicated in the U.S. If our focus had remained on supporting children affected by polio, Easterseals wouldn’t exist today. Yet, we are still around.

To me, innovation means really considering the huge problems society faces and figuring out how we can find new ways to reduce or eliminate those problems. For example, every year in the U.S. there are about a million kids who enter kindergarten at risk of undiagnosed developmental delays or disabilities because they didn’t have access to proper screenings or high-quality early education. In our region alone there are about 50,000 kids a year, which is a huge problem.

Now we are incredibly proud of our child development centers, but opening more centers, which requires raising millions of dollars, is not going to help all those children. So, what we’ve been trying to do is think of ways to exponentially increase our impact and leverage the skills that we’ve built around inclusion.

One of the things we are doing is working with the U.S. Army—one of the largest operators of child development centers in the world – and training their child development personnel on our inclusion model so that we can increase our impact on a larger scale. Each teacher has the potential to directly impact about 25 children a year, and as they interact with the other teachers in their center, it is hundreds of children each year. Just last year, we trained 20 teachers, so we had an impact on thousands of children!

Q: What innovative projects are in place for adults with disabilities?

For adults with disabilities, unemployment and underemployment are critical problems.  Only about a third of working-age adults with disabilities are employed. That means two-thirds are not working, which is a great loss of potential resources.

While there are many programs that provide great training and support, the issue still isn’t fully solved. So we came up with a solution where we can partner with other nonprofits that provide training services and leverage the relationships we already have with employers through the Veteran Staffing Network. The program I am referring to is called EDSN also known as the Easterseals Disability Staffing Network.

IMG_6131We want to provide a more comprehensive solution to employers and increase the percentage of people with disabilities finding meaningful employment. Since we launched more than a year ago, we are proud of the fact that we have helped coached more than 320 people and placed over 100 talented individuals living with disabilities in jobs they can be proud of.

Q: How else has Easterseals exemplified innovation?

It’s always great to highlight wonderful new programs, but a big part of what makes Easterseals so special is the caring nature of our staff, teachers and center directors, who are constantly coming up with new ways to enhance the lives of our participants.

Comcast Assistive Tech - Ms. Penny from Adult Day ServicesRecent examples that come to mind include our registered nurse in the Silver Spring Adult Day Center who came up with new ideas for enhancing our meetings between staff, participants and caregivers so that everybody is fully engaged and is able to give critical feedback.

Also, one of the assistant directors of our child development centers came up with a new process for welcoming new families into the Center, so they could feel more included when they joined. Innovation is not always about something huge and grand like a new program. It’s often something very tactical that can truly make a difference.

Q: As Easterseals looks forward into the future, how will you ensure the organization stays relevant to its community?

With technology constantly changing things, it’s hard to say exactly what direction we will take to stay relevant to our communities. But for us, technology is important in terms of how it can support our work. The key to staying relevant to our communities is still really about listening to what is going on within our communities.

For example, right now we know from studies that 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is projected to be 14 million by 2050. This disease is going to be a huge cost to society and there is no way that all of these people can go into nursing homes.

From our standpoint, we have to create new solutions like medical adult day centers and other ideas that can enable those individuals and their families to get the services they need to be supported without bankrupting the country.

Monumental problems like Alzheimer’s disease are going to require many organizations, governments and forward-thinking individuals working together to come up with viable solutions. And Easterseals has always been good at forging partnerships to bring groups and thought leaders together to solve national problems.

Innovative thinking has always been and will always continue to be a welcome at Easterseals.

For more information on how you can get involved with Easterseals as a volunteer, donor, board/staff member or partner, please go to our website at www.eseal.org.

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