A year ago today, I had no idea that 2005 would be a time of small wonders at Hi-Hope Service Center.
Our public funding was shrinking as our aging clients' needs were growing. And while we had raised private contributions to renovate our 35-year-old Lawrenceville facility, we did not have what we needed to bring our programs up-to-date.
However, with vision, creativity and the introduction of assistive technology, Hi-Hope moved in a new direction that is significantly improving the quality of life for some of our most disabled clients.
Most of the breakthroughs have occurred among the two dozen men and women in our Day Habilitation Program. These folks have severe or profound developmental delays, multiple handicaps and little or no ability to communicate. Many have been with us for years, trapped in a cycle of learned helplessness and, until recently, primarily have received caretaking services.
But Shirley Ford, the manager of the program, wanted to offer more, especially in light of the new emphasis on self-determination and choice for adults with developmental delays.
So in 2004, Shirley obtained the part-time services of Carol Shockley, an assistive technology consultant from Dunamis Inc. Seven months ago we added a second key team member - Janis Hunter, a gifted professional who became the Day Hab supervisor. In 2005, through two small grants, Carol also helped us obtain donated and new computers, software and therapeutic equipment.
We now have moved away from our traditional classroom approach which emphasized group activities. We recognize each client as an individual with a unique mix of abilities and tailor our services to fit.
We also are letting the clients show us what they can do for themselves.
"In the past, the staff automatically would do everything for the clients. Now we sit back and give the clients the ability to make choices and to process tasks," Shirley said.
The breakthrough for one client started with his lunch box.
"Why doesn't Kevin carry his own lunch box?" Janis asked shortly after her arrival last May.
There certainly was no physical reason why the diminutive man with dark brown hair couldn't carry his own bag. But his lack of awareness of his surroundings, coupled with repetitive autistic behaviors and his inability to communicate, had rendered him nonteachable. Or so we thought.
Janis decided to give it a shot. At first, when she placed the green canvas bag into one of his hands, he promptly dropped it. Sometimes he threw it. But over the summer he got it.
Now he carries the bag to the cafeteria each day and even puts it on a specified spot on the counter at his group home in the evenings. He also has been given more responsibility.
"When he knows it's time, he will come to my office door and wait there," Janis said. "We walk to the copy machine. I place the daily lunch roster on the machine. He presses the copy button and gets the copy out and takes it to the supervisor of food services. He knows that's his job."
In recent weeks, we've noticed Kevin is holding his head a little higher. He's even starting to reach out to connect with us. Recently, Kevin walked over to where Janis and I were talking. He gently put his hand in hers and stood quietly. Then he lifted his eyes and looked directly into mine.
"These are small gains but pretty significant gains," Janis said.
Carol's creative use of our new assistive technology is overcoming lifelong barriers to learning. First she digs for something that interests the client. Then she creates computer software around that interest to motivate the client to learn.
The underlying message of the software for these nonverbal men and women is that if they touch the screen, their action has an impact.
Diehard Elvis fan Jenny has become a star student at 60.
Each day, she rolls her wheelchair to a computer desk, dons a set of headphones, inserts an interactive CD into the computer and uses newly acquired mouse skills to spend a little quality time with the King of Rock 'n' Roll. Lately, she's also enjoyed an CD of "Little Women," listening attentively as the computer speaks the words that pop up on the screen.
We have no doubt that she understands what she is hearing and seeing. On a quiz at the end of one chapter, she correctly answered every single question.
Nearly 50 years ago, Hi-Hope was founded by six mothers who believed that their developmentally delayed children could learn if someone would just teach them. What Kevin and Jenny taught us in 2005 is that even the most severely disabled adults among us can continue to learn if we can find a way to reach them.
As we begin 2006, we are anticipating many more breakthroughs. This month, Hi-Hope is launching a three-year project made possible by a generous grant from The Goizueta Foundation. The grant will enable us to assemble a team of specialists to work with our staff in developing improved services for all of Hi-Hope's 136 clients.
For more information about Hi-Hope Service Center, call 770-963-8694.