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Call Your Legislators Today

  1. Senate switchboard – (518) 455 – 2800 – and ask for your Senator.  You can find your Senator at http://www.nysenate.gov/   Urge your Senator to BFair2DirectCare and fund the $45 million .

 

  1. Assembly switchboard (518) 455-4100 – and ask for your Assemblymember.  You can find your Assemblymember at http://assembly.state.ny.us/   Urge your Assemblymember to BFair2DirectCare and fund the $45 million .

#bfair2directcare

Empower belongs to three alliances of developmental disability organizations: Coalition of Provider Associations, Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State (CP of NYS) and Developmental Disabilities Alliance of Western New York (DDAWNY.)   One of the reasons for these collaboratives is to ensure the interests of individuals with developmental disabilities are heard by government so that when it comes time to approve the New York State budget, sufficient money has been allocated to fulfill these interests.

Direct service professionals (DSPs) work directly with people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, ensuring their well-being, safety and health.  Despite this high-level of responsibility, pay is low and not enough to live on, resulting in high turnover and vacancy rates (Empower’s 10% vacancy rate is half New York State’s 20% vacancy rate.)  Agencies like Empower are working together to ensure compensation is reflective of the high level of decision-making and responsibility DSPs undertake, but we need your help.  Please contact your legislators and let them know that DSPs deserve a living wage.

#bfair2directcare is an joint advocacy effort spearheaded by CP of NYS and DDAWNY to lobby for $45 million to be added to the state budget for the next five years to support a living wage for direct care workers, teacher aides and other staff.  Empower has been doing its part, contacting Governor Cuomo, Assemblymember Morinello and Senator Ortt to remind them about individuals with developmental disabilities, direct care workers and the need for increased funding for wages.  This momentum will be kept up until the final budget is approved in April.

We value every Empower employee for upholding our mission: empowering those we serve to live their best lives.  Throughout this issue are examples of how Empower staff worked extra hard to make the holidays a special time for our individuals.  Every day, from Halloween through Christmas, people went above and beyond, promoting areas of need and answering that call through the delivery of gifts and good cheer.  Regardless of the budget outcome, we will prevail in being there for our workers and the individuals all of us are lucky enough to serve.  It is what we do, and as this issue illustrates, we do it well.

CHILDREN’S ACADEMY NEWS

Sensory Room Renovations Complete

The popular bubble columns are once again captivating Children’s Academy students thanks to a renovation of the sensory room. Additional improvements include replacement of the mat around the columns, replacement of the fiber optic cascade and mat, and installation of new projection equipment and images.

 

 

The sensory room is an integral part of occupation therapy. It helps to calm or awaken Children’s Academy students and enables them to return to the classroom refreshed and better able to learn.

This renovation was made possible thanks to a small grant from the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, and a donation from Charles Dieteman, a student at Lewiston-Porter Middle School who has cerebral palsy and who raises awareness and funds for cerebral palsy each year at home with help from the Builder’s Club.

Sensitive Santa

Tristan and Adalyn tell Santa what they want most for Christmas

Tristan and Adalyn tell Santa what they want most for Christmas

Once again, Empower offered Children’s Academy students and families of children with special needs one-on-one, quiet time with Santa. Some children with disabilities, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder, are more sensitive to and are unable to process bright lights, loud noises or crowded areas that go along with this popular tradition. Sensitive Santa ensures that every child gets the chance to visit Santa, to share what they most want for the holidays and to preserve the memory by having a photo taken. Families appreciated having this fun, anxiety-free option.

Halloween Parade and Haunted Hallway

Everyone had a frightfully good time on October 31 when Children’s Academy teachers, students and parents paraded throughout the building in imaginative costumes for treats.  Bravery was required to enter the Haunted Hallway.  Students and even staff proceeded with caution, daring to enter the darkened hall between school wings in order to receive goodies from witchy teachers peering out from creepy classrooms.

Students Celebrate the Seasons

Autumn

In honor of Veteran’s Day, students in Michele Senay’s class, including Alexis and Camden (pictured), made cards to thank veterans for their service.

Additional Resources that Are Needed in 2017

  • The Arts Services Initiative of Western New York agreed to continue funding the program in 2017 with a $1,500 grant. However, this is $1,400 less than was provided in 2016 to cover the acting instructor stipend and supplies/materials.  Empower is seeking this amount for these expenses in 2017.
  • An additional $2,900 is needed to cover the cost of a second acting instructor stipend.  Given the program’s success, we expect enrollment to grow.  We would like to accept up to 20 students per cohort, but based on what was learned in 2016, if the student to instuctor ratio exceeds 3 instructors per 8-9 students, key program benefits (individualized attention and positive reinforcement of desired social skills) will be compromised.  A second acting instructor, additional volunteers  and another older student with autism to mentor students and to assist during classes and final performances are needed to maintain and expand program benefits to students.
  • The provision of a larger space in which to hold dress rehearsals and final performances.  In 2016, these events were held in the Empower’s Children’s Academy teacher’s lounge and gross motor room.  Over 50 people attended both final performances; the room was overcrowded, and hot and stuffy.  Further, depending on where attendees sat, the view may have been obstructed due to a room divider that needed to be partially closed for set changes and for students’ comfort.  Empower is hoping that a nearby school will offer up its auditorium at no charge for two dress rehearsals and two final performances that will take place in late summer and late fall of 2017.  Meeting at the larger space prior to the final performance will allow students who are more sensitive to change due to their autism diagnosis time to adapt to the new space.  Further, larger accommodations will increase attendees’ comfort during final performances.

If you are interested in donating to the Spectrum Theater Program, or in offering up performance space, please contact Elizabeth Cardamone at (716) 297-0798, ext. 173 or ecardamone@empower-wny.org.  Online donations also are accepted by clicking here.

Lessons Learned

Enrollment was below the target (13 actual vs. 40 targeted), but all 3 instructors reported that it was challenging to manage and evoke positive change in 8 to 9 students enrolled in each cohort.  This was especially true in the second cohort which consisted of younger students who were more severely affected by autism.  Future cohorts should procure additional instructors and/or limit student enrollment to assure outcomes are achieved.

The space in which final performances were held was too small to hold all attendees comfortably.  A larger space should be procured for future final performances.

Due to low enrollment among Niagara County residents, students from across Western New York were accepted into the program. One student, who participated in both cohorts, traveled from Hamburg, attesting to interest and need for similar programs in other Western New York counties.

Although offered the opportunity to enroll a sibling/friend, most parents said that their children had few friends, and that making friends was a desired outcome of the theater program.  During the first session, a female participant was supposed to attend with her older sister, but the older sister opted not to participate.  A set of boy/girl twins participated in the second session, but since both of them are on the spectrum, the scenario did not pertain to this objective.  While this option still should be offered in future cohorts, our experience is that it is unlikely to be taken advantage of.

Keys to Program Success

Program success was attributed to the personalized approach taken; Robin Stevens got to know each family prior to the first class and modified lessons based on students’ individual needs and goals.

The instructors’ fluid and collaborative approach also was critical to the programs’ positive impact on students as students’ individual characteristics dictated the groups’ dynamics and workshops’ and final performances’ structures.  Ms. Bri never lost her temper with students and used only positive reinforcement.  When students wandered away or when they were disruptive, instructors listened to their needs and calmly redirected students back to the lessons when they were ready.

Joe, who is 21 and who also has autism, assisted Robin and Ms. Bri during lessons and final performances.  Students in both cohorts responded very well to having an older student who also has autism go through the classes with them, mentoring and instructing them throughout the process.  More mentors will be sought in future cohorts.

Program Successes

Thirteen children ranging in age from 7 to 15 and at all areas of the autism spectrum participated in both cohorts, held in the Summer and Fall of 2016.

During the theater sessions, participants experienced varying degrees of improvement in social skills.  Eye contact with others was a significant skill deficit for all in the beginning.  By the end of the each session, there was significant improvement for all in both focusing on the speaker and looking at the person to whom they were speaking. Interrupting the speaker also decreased for everyone.

Group interaction provided opportunities for students to help each other work through challenges, which was an unexpected positive outcome that occurred.

Another observed program impact was that certain students progressed so much in their social skills development as a result of the program that they comforted and in some cases did therapy with peers who were having a tough time.  The majority of students in the second cohort were younger and more severely affected by autism.  Their behavior often was disruptive and difficult to manage.  During the dress rehearsal, two of these students expressed their frustration by lashing out, screaming and crying.  Two older students, Joshua and Owen, recognized that their friends needed help, and assisted the instructors in calming them down enough so that they could communicate the source of their frustration and reengage in the lesson.  It was truly amazing to witness their personal growth which enabled them to comfort their friends.

Benefits to participants’ families included increased community engagement, respite (resulting in stress relief and better parenting) during workshops and an opportunity to see their children perform in a play.

Student Profiles

brendan

In the first session, Brendan began as a self-focused, precocious boy who wanted all of the attention or he would act up and run around the room. As time went on, he began friendships with only the male participants and engaged in making faces when the girls talked or exclaiming “why did she say that?” When read-throughs of the play began, Brendan had difficulties with a line that referred to a girl as his best friend. He had a tantrum because he didn’t want anyone to think that he had a female best friend. He called Marie his cousin and added that she was not his friend. At the performance, Brendan used the line as written and helped Marie with her lines when she forgot her cues.

In the second session, Josh entered as a young teenager of 14 who seemed annoyed that some participants were half his age.  He grimaced often and distanced himself from a boy who screamed or cried on occasion.  Josh seemed particularly annoyed when one of the participants had a difficult time coping or focusing on the acting exercises. At dress rehearsal, Josh reached out to console Seth while he was crying, getting down on the floor to help him cope.

In the second session, Josh entered as a young teenager of 14 who seemed annoyed that some participants were half his age. He grimaced often and distanced himself from a boy who screamed or cried on occasion. Josh seemed particularly annoyed when one of the participants had a difficult time coping or focusing on the acting exercises. At dress rehearsal, Josh reached out to console Seth while he was crying, getting down on the floor to help him cope.

Owen was another young teenager of 13 who constantly interrupted by asking questions of the adults, as if he were the only one in the room.  The questions were totally off topic like “why is the moon sometimes visible before the sun goes down ?” or “what Foo Fighters’ songs do you know the words to?  He also chose to pass and not participate in some of the acting exercises or prop improvisations regularly.  Special coaching from Miss Bri and talks with his mom were implemented to get Owen to see why his interruptions and self-centered actions were distracting and a disruption of the theater process.  By the end of the session, Owen was volunteering to lead one of the acting exercises and demonstrated this during the introduction at the final performance.

Owen was another young teenager of 13 who constantly interrupted by asking questions of the adults, as if he were the only one in the room. The questions were totally off topic like “why is the moon sometimes visible before the sun goes down ?” or “what Foo Fighters’ songs do you know the words to? He also chose to pass and not participate in some of the acting exercises or prop improvisations regularly. Special coaching from Miss Bri and talks with his mom were implemented to get Owen to see why his interruptions and self-centered actions were distracting and a disruption of the theater process. By the end of the session, Owen was volunteering to lead one of the acting exercises and demonstrated this during the introduction at the final performance.