Tag Archives: special needs

Young Heroes

July 23, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s good exercise. You get to help people. You get to wear cool boots. And maybe best of all: You get to hang out with horses all day.

But there’s one other advantage to volunteering at the Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy: Even teen volunteers are critical to the operation.

“At some volunteer jobs we didn’t always feel useful or needed,” says Sarah Kopsa, 18, the eldest of three teens in the Kopsa family who volunteer at HETRA. However, she says, when the three arrive at the stables, there’s always something for them to do. “We know that if we are on the schedule we better show up because they really will have a problem providing the therapy without us,” Sarah adds.

And so it is, every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. that the Kopsas participate in a variety of activities including mucking stalls, sweeping, grooming, setting up the ring for students, laying out toys, and more. “During the lesson I’m really busy resetting the rings and toys for the next student. It’s good for me to wear boots because it gets dusty in there,” Maria shares.

HETRA’s mission is to improve the quality of life—both physically and emotionally —for adults and children with disabilities using equine-assisted activities. Those with special needs go the HETRA facilities in either Valley or Omaha each week for lessons to help them improve their core strength and balance.

Arriving just after school on Wednesdays, the Kopsa children immediately set out to groom and care for the horses. As kids begin arriving for their sessions, the Kopsas are there to not only welcome them, but also to help get everyone ready to ride, working with anywhere from three to five children each session. “The horses are mild-mannered, but we still have to be at their side at all times, holding the reins and spotting the rider” Sarah says. “The activities, like throwing balls through a hoop or reaching out to take a stuffed toy off a post, may seem simple to us, but to our riders it is challenging.”

While volunteering at the facility may not be forever, it has done plenty to inspire plans for the future among all three Kopsa children. Sarah, who has worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant in an assisted living facility, plans on studying nursing and credits her experiences at HETRA and in assisted living for showing her how to support and interact with others. Maria is considering teaching as a career path “so I’ll be able to better help kids with special needs.”

And James? He hopes to go into accounting and eventually, law. “HETRA is strengthening my desire to serve others in need,” he says. “I think I will always be more sensitive people who are disabled, to the parents of disabled kids and to organizations like HETRA. I don’t know how accounting and law will play into that, but it seems like there could be a good fit someday.”

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On the Job

July 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A program designed to help special-needs youth learn valuable job skills has had some unexpected results. In some cases, the students involved with Project SEARCH at two area Embassy Suites have become the teachers.

According to Embassy Suites La Vista director of sales, David Scott, one program participant is even teaching a fellow hotel employee—who is a political refugee from Sudan—how to speak English.

“Brian is teaching Cleo English and Cleo is teaching Brian housekeeping skills,” Scott says. “You just get out of the way and let it happen.”

In March, Embassy Suites Old Market won the Make a Difference Endowment Award issued by Hilton Worldwide. Embassy Suites La Vista won the same award last year.

Both were honored for their Project SEARCH initiatives, an intensive program that pairs hotel staff with area high school students and others age 18 to 21 with special needs, teaching them job-ready skills.

“The goal is to find meaningful employment for these individuals,” Scott says.
Starting in August, students work an average of five hours a day during three 10-week rotations in different departments. They begin with classes related to the work they’ll be doing and then engage in hands-on experience in areas including housekeeping, banquet kitchen, banquet set-up, and restaurant areas. The program continues until graduation in May.

Scott is getting some top-notch job recruits in the process. He points to Kelly, who had such an infectious smile and attitude that he asked her to greet guests in the complimentary breakfast area. “I thought it would be great for guests and I thought it would be great for her,” Scott says. But, she passed—for now—saying she wanted to stay in housekeeping because she liked cleaning so much.

Then there’s Connor. One day, food had arrived by truck and it was all-hands-on-deck so staff could get the food into the freezer. They couldn’t find Connor—he was already at working putting it away on his own.

Since being developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Project SEARCH has expanded to 275 sites across the country and overseas, including hospitals, retirement centers, banks, zoos and universities. For now, the two Embassy Suites locations are the only Project SEARCH sites in the Omaha area.

The collaboration began in 2012 at the suggestion of the Papillion-La Vista School District. The district provides a special needs teacher and job coaches. Embassy Suites Old Market partners with Omaha Public Schools.

Seven students participated at Embassy Suites La Vista last year and 10 participated this year. The Old Market location had six students its first year. Both hotels expect 10 students in their 2014-15 classes.

“The students are totally involved, totally experiencing the new job field as opposed to isolation on a campus or school, or even coming in for a day and going back,” Scott says. “They live and breathe the organization. They learn side-by-side as interns doing the job on the job.”

Staff members teach classes and assist as job aides. They also are paired with students as one-on-one mentors. Scott estimates Embassy Suites staff have put more than 4,000 hours into Project SEARCH.

The program works. Four interns at Embassy Suites La Vista found jobs last year and up to seven are expected to this year. That’s typical with Project SEARCH. Employment for special needs students averages 15 percent nationally, Scott says. The national rate for those who complete a Project SEARCH program is 60 percent. For those completing a Project SEARCH program in Nebraska it’s 86 percent.

And success sometimes goes beyond finding gainful employment. Scott points to Bruce, a student from the first class who now is planning to move into his own apartment. At the informational meeting for the 2014 class, Scott recalls a parent saying it was the first time she’d felt a sense of future for her son. That he would become a contributor to his community rather than a “burden to the system.”

“I’m elated with these kids,” Scott says. “I see these kids as inspiring.”

Taking the “Special” Out of Special Needs

February 24, 2014 by

VODEC began in 1968 when a group of parents, educators, and others sought to implement a paradigm shift in how people with disabilities are perceived and, more vitally, how they interact with society. Loved ones with disabilities were too commonly all but invisible throughout the larger community. Many went to special schools. Some lived in special housing arrangements. The emphasis, it seemed, invariably centered on the concept of “special.”

“We serve people first and foremost as members of society,” says Daryn Richardson, the local nonprofit’s services development director. “Only secondarily do we see them as persons with disabilities, as persons with special needs.”

VODEC provides day programs, employment programs, and residential programs that are designed to meet most every need in helping individuals and communities reach their full potential through inclusion.

Originally known as the Vocational Development Center, VODEC today serves over 500 individuals with intellectual, developmental, and other disabilities.

“The core of our mission is to recognize each and every person’s full potential as just that—a person with unlimited potential,” says Richardson. “It’s the most basic of starting points in our thinking, and we want the community to think the same way. After all, these are our sons, our daughters, our neighbors, our friends.”

The nonprofit offers a robust slate of programs. The business services unit offers packaging, assembly, shrink-wrapping, and other services staffed by VODEC’s people. Activities programs include dining out and trips to parks, museums, and other places of interest. Additional initiatives are aimed squarely at the idea that we are all social beings. Such topics as how to meet new friends, strategic thinking and problem solving skills, stranger danger, and understanding boundaries help open doors to a broader, richer world for all.

Creativity was the buzzword the day Omaha Magazine visited VODEC.

“WhyArts is here today (see related story on page 111) so they encountered a room full of artists,” says Richardson. “Sure, they also happen to be persons with disabilities, but today they are artists. We want to give them every opportunity to be themselves and experience life in new and rewarding ways. Tomorrow and next week and next month they will be something else, but today they are artists.”

VODEC's Pam Wyzykowksi with Greg Foster

Visit vodec.org for additional information.

Artists for Inclusion

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Iggy Sumnik is a noted artist. Bryan Allison is a young man with intellectual disabilities. Their worlds may seem galaxies apart, but the two have more in common than one might suspect. Both share a love of art, and both would appear to live by the same simple philosophy.

“I like to approach each new day as if I were going for a walk,” says Sumnik, a ceramic artist who worked for three years as a studio assistant under the internationally acclaimed Jun Kaneko. “I sense that Bryan and I might be a little alike in that regard. We keep our eyes and ears open during our walk through the day, and maybe we stumble onto something that is a little bit different. Maybe we even learn something new. I expect to learn something from Bryan today. I hope he feels the same way.”

Sumnik was introduced to Allison through a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations WhyArts and VODEC. WhyArts works to ensure that visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro area. VODEC (see the related story on page 117) provides vocational, residential, and day services for persons with intellectual disabilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

Sumnik unpacks the tools of his profession—a massive block of malleable “potential” and a jumble of clay-working implements—as he explains to Allison and nine of his VODEC friends what would unfold over the next hour or so.

20131213_bs_8014“I didn’t come in with any particular project in mind for you,” he explains. “I’m just here to be an extra set of hands, so I want to see your creativity today—your ideas, not mine.”“Our ideas,” the perpetually smiling Allison replies. “I’m going to make an island. Hawaii. I’m going to be an artist!”

From senior centers and middle schools to the Completely KIDS campus and vocational facilities like VODEC, WhyArts offers a broad slate of programs backed by a small army of talented artists from the arenas of the visual arts, theater, dance, music, poetry, storytelling, and beyond.

The roster of WhyArts artists reads something like a Who’s Who of the creative community. Jill Anderson is the popular chanteuse, recording artist, and Actors’ Equity performer. Roxanne Nielsen makes magic as a frequent choreographer of Omaha Community Playhouse productions. Ballet legend Robin Welch was featured in the last issue of Omaha Magazine. Add spoken word impresario Felicia Webster and Circle Theater co-founder Doug Marr, to name but a few, and it’s a line-up that represents the very best—and most caring—of a city’s imagination pool. “These are more than just talented professionals with long resumes who happen to do workshops,” says WhyArts director Carolyn Anderson. “They are advocates of the arts, but they are also passionate advocates for inclusion.”

Originally known as Very Special Arts Nebraska when the group formed in 1990, the WhyArts model is one that recognizes the simplest of ideas—that creative expression is a foundational attribute of the human condition.

“The underserved populations we reach generally do not have access to the arts,” Anderson continues, “but creativity is innate in us all, regardless of age or ability. What we do is to help people discover that creativity. We don’t try to ‘teach’ art. We experience it right along with them—and on their terms, just like you see Iggy doing here today. Everything we do is carefully tailored to the needs and abilities of the people we serve, but we do it in a way that respects the individual and encourages the artistic expression that is waiting to be released in each and every one of us.”

It’s a formula that also works well for organizations like VODEC.

“The WhyArts mission of inclusion mirrors our own in a perfect way,” says Daryn Richardson, VODEC’s services development   director. “Both of our organizations build bridges to the community with as many organizations and with as many people as we can. That’s the goal of every program we develop.”

Making art in a group, Sumnik adds, is a two-way street. “I try to be nothing more than an enabler for their imaginations,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found inspiration for my own work through people like Bryan.”

Sumnik’s artists have now completed a menagerie of clay creations that will be fired by WhyArts before being returned to their makers. Allison’s fanciful island paradise features a larger-than-life giraffe towering over a lava-spewing volcano.

“We’re getting ready to photograph my art for a magazine!” says Allison, now the center of attention throughout VODEC’s humming-with-activity work floor. “I’m going to be an artist!”

“Going to be?” Sumnik replies. “You’re already there, my man. You’re already there.”

 

Family Success Story: The Zettermans

July 22, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jenny Zetterman hopes that, one day, other families will look at her family and think, “You know what? Nothing should keep us from adopting a special needs child.” Because that’s exactly what Jenny and her husband, Andrew, thought when the opportunity found them.

The Zettermans, who recently moved out to Elkhorn (where their girls will attend Spring Ridge Elementary), adopted their youngest, Annalyse, when she was just 5 weeks old. She had been diagnosed with spina bifada and hydrocephalus (a build-up of fluid in the brain) and was determined paralyzed from the waist down.

Jenny and Annalyse

Jenny and Annalyse

“I was able to go before the rest of the family and stay in the NICU with her for four days while the nurses and doctors gave me information on spina bifada,” Jenny says. “This was extremely helpful because we knew very little about spina bifada. We had two days between finding out about her and flying to go be with her, so we didn’t have time to research while packing and preparing for a baby.”

Life for the Zettermans before Annalyse was fairly typical, although they had adopted once before with daughter McKenna, 8. Nevertheless, Jenny reflects back on that time, referring to it as “the easy years” of parenting. “All three girls were pretty independent…They hadn’t hit pre-teen years, so they still thought their parents were the best people in the world.”

Of course, McKenna, Kaedyn, 7, and Brea, 5, were thrilled to be adding a little sister to their family. “They had a few questions about her diagnosis, but overall, they were just excited to meet her,” Jenny says. “They had to wait about a week after I met her to join me so they wouldn’t miss too much school. I’m sure that wait was very hard for them.” Fortunately, Jenny used the iPhone “Facetime” capability to call home and let her girls see the new baby from the NICU.

Andrew with Brea and Kaedyn.

Andrew with Brea and Kaedyn

According to Jenny, the family dynamic hasn’t changed much since they adopted Annalyse. The only difference? The older sisters love helping out with their little sister and teaching her new things. “Annalyse is just another member of the family…We have a lot more doctor’s appointments and live life around a baby’s schedule again, but that’s about it. I think you just adjust to whatever you have to adjust to.”

Jenny and Andrew’s 13-year marriage has also kept the family solid. “We have a strong commitment to our marriage. I believe our kids can see that and take comfort in it.”

Looking back on the adoption process, Jenny shakes her head. “We went into it knowing that we could be adopting a child with a special need,” she explains. “One thing we did say was that we would consider many different types of needs, but not one that required a wheelchair [because] our house wouldn’t allow for this type of need, and we had just moved in. It seems so silly to us now that we ever uttered those words—‘just not a wheelchair.’”

McKenna

McKenna

Jenny believes too many people, including parents, get too caught up on inconveniences in their own lives that they forget to think about what other people are dealing with or will have to deal with in their lives. “I am so thankful that we ended up letting go of our reservations,” she adds. “We all are capable of so much more than we think we are.”

As for Annalyse, Jenny stresses that she’s a fantastic child. “She’s not blessed to have us; we’re blessed beyond measure to have her in our family. She’s not our ‘special needs daughter;’ she’s just, plain and simple, our daughter.”