Recognizing our Direct Support Professional Heroes!

Direct Support Professional Recognition Week (September 14-18) is a great opportunity to highlight the dedicated, innovative direct support workforce that is the heart and soul of supports for people with disabilities. Days, weekends, holidays, 24 hours per day, these professionals are committed to ensuring that persons with disabilities have every opportunity to lead productive lives in the community. They truly are making dreams come true!

The Barber National Institute employs 900 Direct Support Professionals in Erie, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Bedford/Somerset. Here’s what some of these heroes have to say:

“I’ve been employed at BNI for 18 years and I can honestly say I love everything about my job. Having the privilege to take care of and spend time with those that are unable to take care of themselves and bring smiles to their faces everyday makes my job very rewarding.” – Nichole Spanggard, RSP Hampshire, Erie

“Working at the Barber National Institute has been an enjoyable and rewarding experience for me. Seeing the excitement on the faces of the adults when they grasped a concept that was presented made it all worthwhile. Serving and sharing my gifts with the adults and helping them learn a new skill brings a lot of joy to me and hopefully is making their dreams come true.” – Sister Kevin, Assoc. Instructor, Small Group Employment, Erie

“I enjoy being a direct service professional because learning and growing with the people I work with brings joy to me and lights up my day. I enjoy spreading that joy and making it possible to be happy. I love to do as much as possible to get as much out of life as we can. With much love to all of you!” –Jasmine Kyes-Lucero, RSP Millcrest, Erie

“I love working with the different individuals. I love spending time with them, introducing new things, trying to find ways in which to get them to interact with me. Helping them gain more independence by showing/teaching them how to do different tasks. Each client has special qualities about them. Each client has something to offer and to teach others (their peers/staff that they are around). I love being in the residential setting because I get to interact and do more things with them. The clients have become part of my family. It is not just a job. I enjoy coming to work. I enjoy the work that I do. It is an important position. I take my job very seriously, it is not just about getting a paycheck.” – Amy Hartley, RSP, Rolling Green, Pittsburgh

“What I like about being a DSP is that I’m able to help my individual to remember the fun things they used to do and allow them to teach me something I never knew. As I said when I first got hired “I LOVE WHAT I DO AND WHO I DO IT FOR. IF I CAN PUT A SMILE ON ONE OF MY CLIENT’S FACES THEN MY JOB HAS BEEN DONE. But I have to say I love working for this company and it’s a blessing being a part of such a wonderful community and thank you for all that y’all do for us at the Barber National Institute.” – Shanti Singleton, RSP West Girard, Philadelphia

“I have worked for BNI for six years and I love my job more and more every day! The individuals are the reason I love my job. Their smiles and happiness mean the world to me.” – Frances Pavach, Res. Manager Hampshire, Erie

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sesame Street & Autism: See Amazing in All Children

Julia colors on an episode of “Sesame Street.”

As a member of the PNC Grow Up Great Advisory Board, I had the opportunity to work with the very creative people at “Sesame Street” in the development of Julia, a character with autism. They also designed a website, “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.”

Five years later, researchers posed the question: Would this information change attitudes of parents of typical children and parents of children with autism?

473 parents of children on the autism spectrum and 707 parents of typical children participated in the study. The study found that parents of children with autism had less bias toward children on the autism spectrum than the other parents before looking at the website. After reviewing the materials, bias was reduced among parents of typical children and the two groups of parents had comparable levels.  Also, parents of children with autism showed better attitudes and more knowledge about the disorder after spending time on the website.

These findings demonstrate that a website can serve as a quick and easy way to reduce bias and increase knowledge. The article can be found at

Check out “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children.” It is amazing!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Welcoming back our Heroes at Work!

Today is the first day of inservice for the Elizabeth Lee Black School staff. I thought that I’d share my opening remarks with you as this week’s blog.


Good morning and welcome!

So here we are today, at a GoToMeeting instead of the Forum, in our classrooms with our Teams instead of with the entire school, but we are excited to have you back.

We have been looking forward to your return and the students return since March 12. Who would have guessed that we would be out of school for five months? Certainly not I! We have spent these months planning the safe return of Barber National Institute staff, students and adults. We have been reading and rereading the Guidelines as they change so frequently from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health. We have developed a Health and Safety plan that ensures that our students and staff are safe to the maximum extent possible while maintaining the wonderful, nurturing environment that resonates the spirit of the Elizabeth Lee Black School to everyone who enters our building. Our Health and Safety plan is already in its second draft, reflecting these ongoing changes. You should have a copy in your classroom and can access it on the BNI web page.

We know that there are some conveniences to virtual learning, but we also know that our students learn best when they are in the same room with our expert teachers, therapists, and para educators… with you! Students with special needs present additional unique challenges which makes virtual learning in many cases not successful. But, our children get so much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills, get healthy meals, exercise, mental health and behavioral support, and many other services that cannot be replicated online. It is with this knowledge and within the parameters of our plan that we have made the determination to return to school full time and to offer families the opportunity to attend remotely, should they wish. We have about 50 children attending remotely or via a hybrid schedule.

As we move ahead, it is critical that we all work together, be patient, and flexible. We know that the situation is very fluid with regulations changing frequently so we will be asking for your support. Working together, I know that we are up for the challenges ahead.

The real heroes of the world are the men and women who take the time to make a difference in the life of a child. That is each and every one of you.

Thank you for all you do for our children. We are so fortunate to have you part of the Barber National Institute family!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Many Challenges of Mask Wearing

All of us are struggling with wearing a mask, but it is a unique challenge for teachers, para educators (assistants), and therapists who work directly with our children. They are engaged with our students for six hours per day and must wear a mask for the entire duration. So, I thought I would share some ideas on how to help each of us and our students adjust to this new expectation:

  • Get the student’s attention before speaking by first making eye contact. You may also want to provide written and verbal instructions.
  • Talk louder. Don’t shout, but speak slower. Remember your voice may sound muffled.
  • Convey to your students positive reinforcement through your body language since they cannot see your face. As an example, use a “thumbs up.”
  • Ask your students if they understood your instructions. You could also ask students to repeat the instructions.
  • Talk to the student’s parent(s) and IEP Team to determine the best communication methods for each student before the start of the school year.
  • Some face coverings may be uncomfortable for a student. Discuss the challenges the student is experiencing with a Behavior therapist, Occupational therapist, and other team members to determine as to how best to desensitize the child to wearing a mask.

masks in schools

There are face shields as well as clear face coverings that might be a consideration if the child is experiencing difficulty with the mask, or if you are challenged in teaching.

Unfortunately, I do believe that current “best practice” tells us that we will be wearing masks for many, many months.

Have you ever heard of the term, “smizing?” It means smiling with your eyes. It involves bringing life to your eyes since the rest of your face is behind a mask, and therefore neutral.

Give it a try!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dr. Gertrude Barber: Erie’s Woman of the Century

Picture2Dr. Gertrude Barber was selected by the Erie Times News as Erie’s Woman of the Century this weekend!

I think back to 1952 when children with disabilities were not eligible to attend school. Dr. Barber, as a psychologist for the Erie School District, was the person responsible for telling parents that their child could not enroll in the district. There were two options: institutionalization or stay at home.

I am sure that she did not want to deliver to parents this ominous judgement, but there were no other choices available.  So she began her life work, ensuring that all children and adults with disabilities had every opportunity to reach their full potential.   The first step was creating a class taught by volunteers in space that was donated to her.

Soon there were programs for adults, group homes so that families had options other Picture1than institutional placement, and extensive family support programs. Her reach extended to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Visitors came from around the world to learn about the Barber model. Before she left on her vacation in 2000, she met with me to share some “new” projects she wanted me to work on while she was gone.  That was my last conversation with her as she died on her way to Florida.

With the overwhelming support of our staff and community, Dr. Barber’s vision lives on today.  We continue to “Make Dreams Come True” for our children and adults.  Her mission continues.

You can read the full article, here:

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Research Updates


As you are sitting outdoors enjoying this beautiful weather, I thought that you might enjoy reading these two research articles that I found very interesting.

We are in the midst of planning our students return as we will be implementing in-school, remote and hybrid models.

Next week, I will tell you about the plans for our school.

Have a great weekend and stay safe and healthy!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Support your favorite causes during Erie Gives!

Erie Gives is tomorrow, August 11th!

Erie Gives

Last week, I shared the videos of the Approved Private School and Preschool virtual tours that highlighted our technology, updated gym, classrooms and other facilities that generous donations have helped to fund.

Now, we’re getting ready to reopen school safely with many changes. Thanks to donors like you, we’re able to provide state-of-the-art technology to our students. This technology has been invaluable in enabling remote learning, and it will be even more essential when out students return to the classroom in a few weeks.

Your donation to Erie Gives will help ensure a brighter future for all of our students as they work to achieve their dreams. We are grateful for donations at any time, but a gift during Erie Gives will make an even greater impact because of the pro-rated match from the Erie Community Foundation.

Please donate now at or call 814-454-0843.

On behalf of our children and their families, thank you. Your gift will make dreams come true!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

You’re invited to a virtual tour!

Since March 15th, our school has been closed which has prohibited our “new” families from touring the school. This tour is an integral component to our admissions process, so we have been considering how we can showcase our amazing school – the technology, the state of the art facilities, and most importantly, our staff.

Thanks to Mary Cuneo and Anthony Esposito of External Affairs, I can now invite you on a virtual tour of the Elizabeth Lee Black School, Barber National Institute!

Approved Private School Virtual Tour:

Preschool Virtual Tour:


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Remembering the ADA: 30 Years Ago

It was July 26, 1990: At the invitation of President George H. Bush, Dr. Getrude Barber had traveled to Washington, DC to witness the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This was a momentous occasion for her because she remembered well the year 1952 when no services were available for people with disabilities and they were relegated to institutions across the country. That year, when she started the first program, she served 15 students. As of today, the Barber National Institute serves 6,000 children, adults and families with special needs!


Over the years, she was a strong advocate for inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community, in schools, and in all aspects of life. She shattered numerous “glass ceilings” in her lifetime, but July 26th was the pinnacle of her efforts. Little did she know, her great nephew would be born in 1993 with autism. He would become the beneficiary of many programs and services that were developed as a result of her advocacy.  I can’t imagine what Ryan’s life would have been like without these supports.

For me, the anniversary of the ADA signing is also a day that I reminisce about the many outstanding accomplishments of my Aunt Gertrude. I’m continually awed by how much she was able to achieve in a very short period of time. She would be pleased to see Ryan’s many successes as well as the on-going growth and progress of the Barber National Institute!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Elizabeth Lee Black School’s Health and Safety Plan

Our hallways have never been so quiet for so long.

March 13th was the last day our students were at school.

We have been looking forward to when our children will once again disembark the buses while walking, smiling and returning to their classrooms.

So, after five months of planning we will open our doors on August 31st.   As a prerequisite to opening, we have completed our Health and Safety Plan which is a comprehensive review of the numerous measures we are implementing to assure the health and safety of our school community.

This plan includes:

  • Students will spend the entire instructional day in their classroom.
  • Students and staff will have daily health checks.
  • Students will be able to social distance as the class size is small, with six to eight students per room.
  • Staff will wear masks/coverings during the day. Students with disabilities will be encouraged to wear masks, but will not be required per IEP team recommendations.
  • High touch areas will be cleaned throughout the day and there will be a nightly deep cleaning of all areas.

The entire plan can be viewed here.

We are closely monitoring and following the PA Department of Health, PA Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Should they change their recommendations as to opening, we shall do as well.

However, for now, we are looking forward to the return of our students on August 31st with great anticipation and excitement.

Stay healthy, wear your mask, and maintain social distance. Let’s keep Erie safe!

health and safety

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment