CIRCLE UP — Students in an integrated classroom at the Preschool Learning Center sing a song with their teacher, during a group activity. Photos by Lizz Schumer.
SPRINGVILLE — “Play is the work of children,” said The Children’s League Executive Director Christine Lewis. At the league’s facility in Springville, working hard at playing hard is the order of the day.
With a stated mission to “provide a collaborative, family-friendly environment that encourages all children to achieve their full potential,” The Children’s League operates to “help young children with special needs develop the foundational skills needed, to optimize future potential,” according to its vision.
LET’S BOUNCE — One of the Children’s League students enjoys a moment on the playground, during a recent school day.
If the echoing laughter throughout the H-shaped building, squeals of play emanating from the playground out back and colorful arts and crafts projects’ peppering the walls are any indication, the inhabitants of that building spend all day, every day, doing just that.
The League for the Handicapped was founded in 1960 by a group of six parents and children, who met in the basement of the Springville Presbyterian Church ,to figure out how to best serve children with special needs.
“Back then, there were no services for special needs children,” Lewis explained. “This group of parents got together, ran an ad in the Journal and came together, to do something for their children.”
In 1961, Betty Cooke spearheaded the group’s efforts to open a nursery school, with seven children and seven volunteers, which met for one morning, per week. Several years later, the group outgrew that facility and moved to the local Springville Methodist Church, with 30 kids and 30 volunteers.
Under the direction of Edith Palmer, the school received its first funding from the United Way, in 1972. In 1986, the Springville Lions Club donated the property on which the school is now located. The center officially opened for business in January of 1987, constructing an addition in 2003.
The League for the Handicapped is in the process of changing its name, to reflect current terms for people with special needs.
“To say ‘handicapped’ is no longer [politically correct],” Lewis said. “We are here for the children, whatever their needs.”
Today, the Children’s League employs 120 staff members, to offer approximately 120 students a five-day program, during the school year, as well as a six-week summer program. Head Start Springville also operates two integrated classrooms, with 20 children each, as well as an 18- – 36-month class.
PICTURE BOOK — This picture book helps autism-spectrum children communicate with their teachers and aides.
“We’re classified for all types of developmental disabilities, speech and language, orthopedic, autism spectrum, multiple impaired, learning, emotional and behavioral and intellectual impairment,” Lewis explained, adding that New York state divides disabilities into 13 different classifications, all of which the league is approved to serve, even if not all of them are necessarily represented, among their population, at any given time.
There are 12 classrooms for mixed enrollment and four for autism-spectrum-students, which utilize an applied behavior analysis program, for verbal behavior training. There is also one classroom for children with multiple disabilities. The league serves children from birth – 8 years old, although Lewis said that most students transition out at 5 years old, depending on their educational support needs.
“We do find kids with multiple disabilities or kids who are autistic, who stay on. It depends. Some need an extra year or so, for growth or integration. It depends on what direction they go in,” she explained. “Science research shows that, especially with orthopedic issues or evident birth defects, early intervention is key, which is when we might start working with them from birth.”
Among the staff are special education teachers, speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, two nurses, two psychologists, three social workers and 50 aides.
“We have a wonderful, dedicated staff, many of whom have been with us, for many years,” Lewis said. “We also have a lot of young blood, too. We’re fortunate to have a great mix.”
Staff members come from Buffalo, Hamburg, Orchard Park, East Otto and other areas, and the school serves a 50-mile radius around Buffalo, encompassing 35 school districts in Erie, Cattaraugus and Wyoming counties.
“Aside from [Springville-Griffith Institute and Bertrand Chaffee Hospital], we are the biggest employer, in the Springville area,” Lewis added.
In addition to the students who are bused in or dropped off, The Children’s League also serves 50 children, in home-based settings.
“We go into the home and assess the need of the individual child and the family,” Lewis said. “The family becomes integral, in that situation.”
The services offered by The Children’s League are funded by the school district in which the child lives, the New York State Department of Education, the child’s county of residence and the New York State Department of Health.
“There is a lot of proposed legislation that deals with funding for those with special needs, especially adult services,” Lewis said. “But we fight for the younger kids.”
The Children’s League utilizes what Lewis called “an eclectic developmental approach,” which takes each child’s individual development into account and “helps them develop the skills they need, at their own, unique pace.”
Lewis said that the family’s support is important and that the staff works for communication and linkage between what the child works on, in school, and what happens after school, at home, through the use of daily logs and communication, between parents and the school officials.
“We try to establish the same goals, so that the child is working on the same things, here and at home. We’re shaping an experience that’s based on their developmental age, not their chronological age. We help recognize the level the child is at and set segmented goals, so the child is making gains, at their own pace.
TAKE YOUR PICK — Shelves of toys are available in the occupational therapy room, for play therapy children undertake, one-on-one.
“Our desire is always to serve the child in the least restrictive environment,” she said, noting that most children attend the center for all five days, although some will come for two days, instead.
In addition to the regular, school-year program, the center hosts a six-week summer program, with the same level of service and support that takes place, during the year. That includes weekly special events, including an Olympics, a family carnival, a nature day with both stuffed and live animals, a truck day and a water play day.
“It’s really great to get the parents and grandparents involved and [the special events] are really, really fun for everyone,” Lewis said, noting that the center runs the same programs, every year, although she is always looking for new ideas and small changes, to keep things fresh.
“It’s a nice, informal way to bring the families in. A lot of these kids have a hard time being outside of their routines. We try to create activities that are appropriate for all of the kids, so that they can participate, up to their level.”
Lewis said the league’s organizers are challenged with funding, which requires engagement with local service organizations and the community. Two fundraisers support their efforts: a 5K run and fun walk, sponsored by the Springville Kiwanis Club. The fourth annual event will take place on Aug. 10, this year.
“It’s a fun day, for the whole family,” Lewis said, noting that a pancake breakfast and kids’ games are also featured.
Night Under the Stars is an adults-only affair, which takes place in the school’s park-like playground. That event, which will be held on July 27, this year, includes a silent auction, refreshments by Julie’s Pizzeria in Springville, beer and wine and live music.
That event serves the dual purpose of raising money for the organization and showcasing the facility’s one-of-a-kind playground structure, which Lewis said is the only fully-accessible playground in Western New York.
The playground was built by a community build event, four years ago, in which 150 volunteers gathered on a drizzly October weekend, to help erect the structure.
“It was a very exciting weekend in which our whole community really came together,” Lewis said. “It’s just a magnificent area and was designed as a playground and a garden, by an architect whose child also has special needs, so they were very attuned to that aspect of it.”
MOVE TO THE MUSIC — A Children’s League student is pictured, using the dance chimes installed in the playground, in honor of Dale Manchester and his daughter, Janet English.
The playground area features two play structures, a picnic grove, paths, gardens and a dance chimes area, dedicated to Dale Manchester, the league’s former attorney.
A team of occupational and physical therapists worked with the architect, to build the playground, so that it was designed with ramps and platforms, to provide full access, as well as staircases, slides and other playful equipment that helps the students accomplish their therapeutic goals.
LEAFY ARCHES — A child-sized green archway leads to one of the playgrounds on the Children’s League grounds.
The community may use the playground, the picnic grove or any of the outdoor facilities, to keep active and enjoy the outdoors.
“They keep increasing the pressure on academics, but children need movement. We all do. It’s just as important as academics.”
In additional to multi-purpose classrooms, the facility features an occupational and physical therapy room, with therapeutic tools that “encourage playful fun,” Lewis said.
A sensory room, installed in 2008, in honor of T. Mark Reynolds III, son of Springville native and former Congressman Tom Reynolds, provides OT equipment for students who need help with sensory input.
In the autism spectrum-specific classrooms, students are paired up, one-on-one, with a staff members. Some of the students who are nonverbal are encouraged to communicate using signs, either American Sign Language or any other method the child is able to use, to get their message across.
“We try to get them to communicate with us, to see that we are helpful people, in their lives,” Lewis explained.
A vision alcove in the multiple disabilities room helps children with vision problems work on their vision or using what eyesight they do have, with the help of a contracted vision teacher.
In the perceptual motor room, in which the equipment rotates often, kids can get active and participate in running, jumping and climbing activities, that also help their motor skills.
“We’re a busy place,” Lewis said, with a laugh. “There’s always a lot going on here. But this is where we like to be, serving the children and serving our wonderful community.”
The Children’s League is located at 393 North St. in Springville. Call the office at 592-9331 or visit www.preschoolearningcenter.org.