Making Dreams a Reality

Did you know that yesterday was Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s birthday? She is known internationally as the woman who began Special Olympics in the late 60’s. There were 1,000 participants the first year… and today, there are over three million athletes from 150 countries!

What was the impetus to begin Special Olympics?

It all began with a phone call. In 1960, Eunice Shriver received a call from a mother who could not find a summer camp for her child with an intellectual disability. She solved this problem by beginning her own camp, “Camp Shriver” at Timberlawn, her farm in Maryland.  She would invite children with disabilities to participate in recreational activities with her children and their friends. What was most important to her was the interaction between typical children and children with special needs.

Sounds familiar?

Ten years earlier, a group of parents approached Dr. Gertrude Barber and told her that the school district would not accept their children because they had disabilities. She believed that all children must have every opportunity to develop to his or her fullest potential. And so began the Barber Center.

Two women unknown to each other, but with similar dreams. Overtime, their paths frequently crossed as they advocated for children and adults with disabilities. Because of Eunice Shriver, President John F. Kennedy established the White House Task Force on Education and Rehabilitation of the Mentally Retarded. Dr. Barber was one of twenty-five delegates nationwide who was invited to serve. This was the beginning of the national movement to serve children and adults with disabilities.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Gertrude Barber influenced dramatic changes in attitudes towards people with disabilities through legislation, education and public awareness. Certainly, they are two women who changed our world for the better.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver

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July 4th: The Magic of Fireworks

I love fireworks! When Ryan was three, I was so excited to take him to his first fireworks display. The eruption of the opening blast sprayed the sky in magical colors that glowed in radiant hues and then… Ryan began screaming. We quickly exited and I thought, “Perhaps he is too young.” We tried again the next year, still unsuccessful. The following year, I finally “got it” and we watched the fireworks peacefully from inside. From then on, we always went indoors before the first display.

Without preparation for the big day, an event-filled schedule can leave a child with autism feeling un-festive. I hope the tips I’ve collected along my journey help you prepare for the holiday so that your Fourth of July is full of fun!


Fun overload can easily occur on the Fourth of July and other holidays. I always suggest keeping the day simple and structured. If you get up at 7 a.m., continue to do so even on a holiday. When Ryan was young, we kept our daily routine, whether it was a holiday or not. Making a schedule for your child is also helpful. It may include: “Play in sandbox. Play on swings. Take a break.” The expected can be calming.

Bring along your child’s favorite toy or activity to any event. This might allow your child to stay busy while you are chatting with your friends and family. Ryan was always very content watching movies on his iPad.

Limit the time that you are attending picnics or social events. If your child is like many children on the spectrum, these situations may make him or her anxious. You may see an increase in repetitive behaviors, such as twirling, finger waving, lining up cars, etc. This is a sign of anxiety as your child is returning to a behavior to keep the “sameness” in his/her life. Just alert your host that your visit may be shorter than expected.

Picnic food may not be your child’s favorite, or perhaps your child is on a restricted diet. Find out beforehand what will be served so that you can come prepared with alternatives. I suggest explaining why you’re asking to the host in advance so that he/she isn’t offended, but knows that you simply wish to help your child be successful.

And for those fireworks….you can enjoy them indoors like we did, or you can watch them on TV. Changing the volume on the TV may desensitize your child to the noise. It was interesting that we were the only ones indoors for the fireworks the first year, but with each Fourth of July after, the number grew.

The Fourth of July celebration can come in many forms. Take the time and select alternatives that will make it a fun holiday for both you and your child. And of course, be prepared that what worked last year, may or may not work this year. But isn’t that what makes our lives such an adventurous journey?

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Helping children “Grow Up Great!”

pnc grow up great

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a conference call with the Grow Up Great (GUP) Advisory Board and PNC staff.   These meetings are always thought-provoking sessions in which I learn some of the latest projects of GUP, and new developments in Early Childhood Education, and advocacy.

The meeting was very stimulating, so I want to share some of the highlights with you today.

  • PNC has given $500 million dollars to GUG over its 15 year history! Although not present for all 15 years, I must say that this very significant commitment has truly changed the face of Early Childhood Education in the US. Today, business leaders generally recognize that quality Early Childhood Education is essential if we are to have an effective and qualified workforce in the future. That was not a generally accepted principle until Jim Rohr and PNC stepped up to the plate with their support. For more information on Grow Up Great, visit
  • PNC is sponsoring “Be My Neighbor Day” in all of its regional markets. Grants of $150,000 are available to allow PNC to determine what the needs of its region are as it relates to Early Childhood.  For more information, visit my neighbor day
  • The National Institute of Early Childhood Research (NIEER) supports Early Childhood Education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research. NIEER has identified a model to assist states in identifying the cost of quality preschool and available revenue so as to maximize the local, state and federal funding as well as to access non state dollars. For more information, visit
  • Sesame Street is 50 years old! I can hardly believe it! Sesame has a new program, “Growing Together, Ready for School and Beyond,” which emphasizes increasing engagement and communication between families and educators. There is also a free interactive online course for Early Childhood Education educators whose purpose is to help educators increase children’s readiness for school. Topics include: social and emotional learning, language, literacy, motor development and cognitive development. For more information, visit
  • The National Center for Family Learning has a three year partnership with PNC implementing “Say and Play with Words” a program to mitigate the word gap in low socioeconomic status (SES) children. Sadly, by age 4, low SES children are exposed to 30 million less words than their peers. Their research has shown that by participating in this program, children will hear 6000 more words than the control group. The long term goal is to integrate the program into local initiatives. For more information, visit

Thank you PNC for taking on this leadership role and allowing me to be part of the Grow Up Great Advisory Board!



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Summer and Spending Time Outdoors

Summer at last!

Summer was always very exciting when I was a child. My family would set aside Wednesdays for trips to Conneaut Lake Park. Our favorite ride, which we went on again and again, was the Blue Streak. But mostly, our summer vacations were always spent outside playing with the neighborhood kids, bicycling, red rover, and games of croquet. We did not have video games to temp us into staying indoors, thank goodness!


Once Ryan was in school, the arrival of summertime meant: no more homework, “sleeping in” to 7am, and lots of opportunities to be outside. Ryan always was so happy to be outdoors after spending the last 9 months in school classrooms.

To be sure, I never knew who was more thrilled…Ryan or me!

Of course, there was my major concern:  Would I be able to find someone to be with Ryan during the weekdays while I worked??

We had tried the usual camps (unsuccessfully, I might add!), so beginning in April, I would look for a college student who wanted a summer job. Usually the students were special education majors hoping for experience that they could include on their resumes.

Ryan 2017 Beast

This solution was a win-win, as it was great for Ryan because I would recruit a young man (who could be a peer), who had similar interests and liked to swim, play basketball, run, hike, and generally spend most of the day outdoors.

Summer is a wonderful time for all children, especially for children on the autism spectrum.  There are increased opportunities to learn and practice their social skills and perhaps meet new friends, which often can be a challenge.

For Ryan, summer allowed him to practice skills that he had learned at school in various community environments.  Exposure to a variety of settings as well as people also enabled him to expand his coping skills and work through his anxiety issues.

So what’s on the agenda for summer 2019?  Golf, swimming, kayaking, and hiking—if only it warms up!ryan-golf

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Highlights of the 2018-2019 School Year

Tuesday was the last day of school at the Barber National Institute. We had such a remarkable year with so many outstanding accomplishments! As I look back over the last nine months, many come to mind:

  • Our Erie Arts and Culture residency program which featured creative dance instructor, Shari Mastalski, M.A. Over a period of 20 days, Shari worked with our students exploring how creative dance creates an environment to learn body and space movement, listening, focus, and relationship building.

Shari Mastalski, M.A.

  • Trisha Yates and the Erie Playhouse. During our second semester, Trisha met weekly with our students as they prepared for the production of the book, “The Rainbow Fish.” Our opening premiere was May 23rd at the Erie Playhouse and they “wowed” the audience! You could see the enthusiasm and excitement on the students’ faces as they received a standing ovation from the packed auditorium. 


    Trisha Yates at “The Rainbow Fish” premiere 

  • Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports. With a goal of promoting a positive culture in our school, faculty learned proactive strategies for defining, teaching, and supporting appropriate student behaviors.
  • Collaboration with Notre Dame and robot therapy. In one of our projects, Notre Dame students programmed the robot according to a script of activities regarding expectations of how to act in a group. While interacting with the students, the robot demonstrated appropriate behaviors and the students would then model the robot’s behaviors. Some examples are to keep hands and feet quiet in a group and to look into the eyes of a person talking. They loved their robot visits! For next year, we are considering some games that the robot will play with our students to increase joint attention.


    Interacting with the robot

My highlights could go on and on…so much has happened in the Elizabeth Lee Black School! I am truly grateful for our outstanding faculty who day in and day out “make dreams come true” for our children and their families, and the Erie community at large who believes and supports our mission!

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Safari Soirée

On June 7th, the Barber National Institute is sponsoring, Safari Soirée, its annual Expanding Social Opportunities (ESO) Prom. ESO dances are a fun, positive event for adults with Autism or Intellectual Disabilities to enjoy an evening of dancing and friendship with their peers from Edinboro, Penn State Behrend, Gannon, and Mercyhurst Universities.  It’s hard to believe these dances started 18 years! The Bel-Aire Hotel is the host for this year’s Safari Soirée.


With Ryan at the 2018 prom

We anticipate over 200 adults and 100+ volunteers this Friday night.  If you ask any of the attendees why they enjoy the prom, you will get many diverse responses:

  • I get the opportunity to wear a very fancy dress.
  • It’s a special night with my friends.
  • I like dancing to fast songs.
  • I get to make many new friends.
  • I think the snacks are delicious.

Erie continues to be a very generous community. We have been receiving donations of suits and dresses since January. Additional sponsors include:

  • The Bel-Aire Hotel
  • Corry Veterans of Foreign War
  • Curtze Food Service
  • Planet Hope, California

So, if you want to “dance up a storm” this Friday night, join us at Safari Soirée!

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Better Speech and Hearing Month

I asked Amy Moczulski, M.A., CCC-SLP, who is a speech-language pathologist at BNI to write this guest blog for Better Speech and Hearing Month.  She serves as department chair, and I thought she would have invaluable input!


When the staff at the Elizabeth Lee Black School thinks about May, they likely think of walks outside, time on the playground, the end of the school year nearing, or teacher/staff appreciation week, but for the speech-language pathologists, we also think of Better Speech and Hearing Month.


Our Speech Department at BNI

Better Speech and Hearing Month is celebrated every May, and it is a way to bring more awareness to our field to let people know a little bit more about what we do every day. When people ask me what I do for a living, I often get the response, “So you work on getting kids to say ‘R’?” or “You work on getting people to talk.” While those things may be true, the field of speech-language pathology is incredibly diverse. Speech-language pathologists assess, diagnose, treat and help to prevent disorders related to speech, language, cognitive-communication, voice, swallowing and fluency in individuals of all ages, from birth to the elderly. While speech-language pathologists work in the school setting, you will also find SLPs working in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities, private practice, day care centers, or in the home setting. So whether an SLP is working with a newborn in the NICU on feeding, teaching a professional singer proper vocal techniques to save his/her voice, working on cognition with an individual with dementia, or providing someone with augmentative and alternative communication, the goal remains the same: to help people achieve goals to enhance skills for optimal social and life participation.

Amy Moczulski, M.A., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist at the Barber National Institute’s approved private school for ten years, where she serves as the department chair. She obtained her M.A. degree from Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. Amy has worked with individuals on the autism spectrum for the past 18 years and has a particular interest in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Amy spends her time away from work with her husband and their two sons who are seven and four.

Please take a look at some resources and helpful tips related to Better Speech and Hearing Month.


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