John Dixon has fun participating in the Therapy Gym at the Prospect School, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014, in Queensbury. (Steve Jacobs - [email protected])
November 30, 2014 8:00 am • By Michael Goot
QUEENSBURY — Twelve-year-old Ryan Randles is lowered from the little school bus in his wheelchair after a roughly 25-mile trip to his house on a recent afternoon. He is napping after a busy day of school. After being escorted into the house and out of his wheelchair, he crumples onto a blanket on the floor in the living room.
“Are you going to sit or lay down?” asked his mother, Debbie Randles. Ryan responds by slouching back down and sucking his thumb. His mother interprets that as meaning ‘That’s it: I’m done.’ It’s time to rest.
Ryan has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair bound. He cannot walk and doesn’t communicate very much. Although he is 12 years old chronologically, developmentally, he is about 1 or 2.
Randles said her son had a lot of issues when he first started attending Prospect Center in Queensbury nearly about nine years ago at age 3. He would sleep a lot at school and not got a whole lot done during the day. “There were some days we had him awake for most of the day and that was an accomplishment in itself,” she said.
Randles said the staff at Prospect helps him get out of his chair and walk with the help of a device called a gait trainer, which is like an oversized walker. The progress he has made is tremendous, according to Randles. “He can sit up. They’ve been working on standing with him. They’re working on walking,” she said.
Ryan is still very uncommunicative but is more cooperative, according to Randles. Now, her son is willing to eat and is even starting to learn to feed himself. “We used to fight with him to even get him to open his mouth to eat,” she said.
He also has improved socially. “He used to not want to really interact with anybody, and now he loves reaching out to people. He likes giving hugs,” she said.
These gains wouldn’t be possible, Randles said, without Prospect’s caring staff. “They know what they can get out of him and they push him to do his best, which is great,” she said.
Prospect Center has spent six decades helping people with disabilities “get better at life,” as its motto says. “It’s amazing how many lives are touched,” said Deputy Executive Director Anne Schneider Costigan.
The organization started in 1950 as United Cerebral Palsy of Glens Falls. “They were committed to providing services to students who might otherwise wouldn’t have gone to school,” Costigan said.
Now, the center handles not just people with cerebral palsy, but more than 300 types of disabilities.
A total of 38 students are in kindergarten through 12th grade and 67 are in the pre-school program designed for children from 2 1/2 to 5 years old, said Principal Sally Filicetti. Most of the students come from Warren, Washington and northern Saratoga County, but there are also students from Hamilton and Essex counties.
The school works very closely with parents to design individual education plans for their children. At the preschool level, the staff is gradually introducing concepts to students about how to sit still, wait their turn and respond appropriately in an academic setting, Filicetti said. “For many of these young children, it’s their first time away from home in this type of setting,” she said.
The classes have mixed age ranges, said Director of Diagnostic and Treatment Services Colleen Fennell-Gordon. The ages in the primary grades range from 5 to 11, and in the secondary grades range from 12 to 21. There is a ratio of eight students to one teacher and three teacher assistants. The preschool has classes of 12 students to one teacher and four teacher aides, and another one of eight students, one teacher and two teacher aides.
On any given day in the school’s therapy gymnasium, children can be seen jumping on trampolines, crawling through tubes and climbing up walls. The movement helps them with their social and behavioral skills. Some of these children are autistic or have special needs that make it difficult to adjust to a regular school setting, according to Filicetti.
It is all part of the school’s relatively new program MOVE, short for Mobility Opportunities Via Education, which was added in 2013 when Prospect Center became an affiliate of the Albany-based Center for Disability Services. “That really gives students an opportunity to move in ways that they hadn’t previously been provided,” she said.
Filicetti said the partnership, which took effect in January 2013, was logical because both organizations serve similar populations. By teaming up, the Center for Disability Services was able to offer training and expertise to Prospect Center. Previously, Filicetti said the school tended to take on students with more significant disabilities and medical needs. Since the affiliation with the center, the organization has taken on more autistic students. “I always say: ‘Change is good.’ Things are always changing,” added Filicetti, who is one of the school’s original teachers.
Another program the school uses that was brought over from Center for Disability Services is called RAAVE, which stands for Responsibly Addressing Autism Via Education. RAAVE uses token reinforcements to improve student behavior, according to occupational therapist Amber Menshausen. The school finds out from parents what types of things students like, such as favorite toys or foods. The staff creates picture cards with those rewards and gives out tokens for good behavior, Menshausen said.
“Once they hit a certain number — it’s different for each child — then they can cash those in to receive a reinforcement,” she said.
Students in the RAAVE program follow a structured schedule with little planners containing small square Velcro-backed tiles with a graphic on them such as “snack.” At some points in the day, the students will get to choose the activities. They try to mix up the activities and lessons, according to Fennell-Gordon. “They try to incorporate a movement in the middle of the morning. They’ve been sitting a lot,” she said.
The school also uses aquatic therapy. “A lot of our students with mobility needs find it easier to move in the water because they have that weightlessness,” Menshausen said. The school’s pool comes equipped with equipment that can lift them out of wheelchairs and into the water. It is used for students with cerebral palsy, but also for students on the autism spectrum, Fennell-Gordon said. It helps stimulate their senses, which she said is what a lot of these students need.
On a recent morning, Jaime Wagner was helping 3-year-old Devin Orton with his aquatic therapy.
“Let’s see if you can make it all the way down today,” Wagner said. The two played games, and Wagner assisted Devin as he grabbed fish-shaped rings and placed them over a cone at one side of the pool.
“A lot of it is following directions, being able to complete the tasks,” Fennell-Gordon said.
Randles said Ryan loves the water because it gives him something different to do. The physical therapist will have Ryan kick his legs, stand up in the water and try to get him to take steps or put his feet on the side of the pool, according to Randles. “It’s another form of exercise. He’s pretty immobile. He doesn’t get a lot of exercise,” she said.
Fennell-Gordon said the school also tries to do some of the traditional team sports such as basketball and baseball, but adapts them for students who have special needs. “We use little balls and big sticks,” she said. Staff will also help guide them.
Students also have music therapy for a half-hour once a week. Fennell-Gordon said students, regardless of their physical limitations, are able to play some type of instrument. “It brought so much joy to them,” she said.
The staff also provides assistance to students who need help eating at lunch time. While she was eating, 10-year-old Kolbi McKinney tipped her head at an angle and darted her eyes to the computer screen to try to answer the question of how old she is. Prospect Center speech language pathologist Linda Church pulled up a menu of numbers on the screen. Kolbi, who has a disorder that affects her body’s ability to process proteins and limits movement and speech, haltingly gazed in the direction of the number she wanted to pick. She initially said her age was 3. Then, she chose 7. Apparently, the South Glens Falls girl was having fun with the question — putting up a little equation that added up to her age.
In addition, Menshausen said classrooms have designated “break spaces,” where students can take a moment to decompress before heading back into the activity.
Menshausen said the partnership with Center for Disability Services has been wonderful because it has allowed for more training opportunities for staff. “There’s been a lot of positive changes,” she said. “The staff has done a wonderful job of taking that on.”
Sometimes students return to their home school districts after a couple of years at Prospect, as Glens Falls resident Denisha Corbett’s 5-year-old autistic daughter, Tristana, did. Corbett had wondered if her daughter would ever talk normally. She only said one or two words at a time, didn’t play well with others and was lost in her own little world. “We taught her sign language because she could not communicate,” she said. The teachers were wonderful in interacting and playing with her, according to Corbett. Her daughter’s speech, gross motor and social skills have improved as a result. “They really brought her out of that shell that she was in,” she said.
After they age out of the school, some students will go on to live in group homes and participate in the adult day program. Prospect Center serves about 1,200 people annually in services such as physical, occupational, speech and aquatic therapy.
About 95 percent of the center’s budget is funded by governmental sources, including tuition from the students’ home school district, according to Costigan. However, 5 percent comes from private sources through fundraising efforts such as the Festival of Trees and a volleyball tournament at Million Dollar Beach in Lake George. Those funds are very important. For example, it took more than $50,000 to equip the therapy gym, according to Filicetti. Much of that came from fundraising and private grants.
Costigan said the center has an endowment of $3.25 million, which it hopes will continue to grow so the center can maintain and enhance programs. The agency is looking to expand its fundraising efforts now that it is under the Center for Disability Services. Costigan said there will be a focus on Prospect Center during the CFDS telethon that occurs in January. “We are going to need the community to help us continue the wonderful programs and services we provide,” she said.
The community and people such as the Randles have come to rely on those services. “I just don’t think Ryan would be where he is right now if he was in a different program. I think he’s come way farther than I expected and I think that has a lot to do with Prospect,” Randles said.
AT A GLANCE
Prospect Center currently serves 1,200 people with disabilities in Warren, Washington, Saratoga, Essex and Hamilton counties.
1950: Prospect Center is incorporated originally as United Cerebral Palsy of Glens Falls.
1960s: The center opens a classroom at Friends Meeting House and an office on Bay Street.
1970s: A new building opens on Aviation Avenue.
Mid-1980s: Prospect Center opens at Aviation Road location.
2002: Prospect Center opens a nearly 14,000-square-foot two-story addition onto the school that provides office space, meeting rooms, a conference room and the aquatic therapy center. A 2,750-square-foot addition is added to the main building.
2013: Prospect Center becomes an affiliate of the Albany-based Center for Disability Services.
Source: Prospect Center