Honoring Project SEARCH Graduates and Their Families

Since its beginning 26 years ago at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Project SEARCH has played a vital role in the lives of students with disabilities who want to advance their skills, become increasingly marketable to employers, and live as independently as possible while making valuable contributions within their own communities. Project SEARCH has grown into an international network of program sites and provides a unique blend of classroom instruction, hands-on training through worksite rotations, supportive job coaching, and individualized career exploration.

Students attend the program for a full school year at the host business where they will become familiar with the culture of the organization, their work group, and job responsibilities. They will build communication, problem-solving, technology, and teambuilding skills.  They also regularly interact with supervisors to arrange interviews and gain valuable feedback.

Project SEARCH emerged in Erie in response to an increased need for a transition-to-work program that focuses on helping young people with disabilities make successful transitions to productive adult life. I had the unique pleasure of speaking at the second annual Project SEARCH Graduation held on the Alleghany Health Network Saint Vincent Hospital campus.

A special thanks was extended to Project SEARCH sponsors, including Allegheny Health Network Saint Vincent Hospital, The Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Erie County Department of Human Services, the Erie School District, and the Barber National Institute. Students’ families have played an important role in supporting them throughout their time in the program, and the success of Project SEARCH in Erie would not be what it is without the involvement of so many families. This year’s graduation ceremony featured five outstanding graduates, and ten more students are enrolled in the program for the fall.

When Dr. Barber established the Barber National Institute 70 years ago, it was to make sure that all children and adults had every opportunity to become an active participant in their community. The COVID pandemic has not stopped us from reaching the important goal of ensuring that students take part in the real-world work experiences that prepare them for success in competitive integrative employment.

Employers have also benefited from Project Search in that they are able to achieve a diverse and inclusive work culture where people of different backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas are given an opportunity to learn and grow within their chosen career paths, offer their viewpoints, and impact decisions made throughout the organization. We know that employers whose workforces reflect the diversity within their communities are resilient, innovative, and adaptable.   

I was so impressed by the young people who graduated from Project SEARCH this week who have shown such hard work, diligence, and dedication. As they move on to jobs at Allegheny Health Network Saint Vincent, and other employers, they should be proud of what they have accomplished and know that we are inspired and proud of them!

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Celebrating Better Hearing and Speech Month

In celebration of Better Hearing and Speech Month, I posed some questions to our therapists, and their answers were amazingly similar. I would like to share their thoughts.

What aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?

“Working as a team, along with my fellow SLPs, OTs, PTs, behavior team, teachers, and paraeducators. It is so beneficial to be able to have the support of others on the team all working together to accomplish the same goals for the students.”

“There are so many aspects of my job that I enjoy, so I will just list a few! I love working with such a diverse group of students with varying complex communication needs. I love that I continually learn alongside my students and that they push me to adapt and grow as a clinician to meet their communication needs. I really enjoy working together with an excellent group of therapists within my department but also across other disciplines. I am very fortunate to work toward common goals with so many skilled and knowledgeable occupational therapists, physical therapists, and behavior specialists.” 

“I enjoy working with the kids the most and using all different forms of communication to help the students communicate their wants/needs and participate in activities during the day. Also, our therapy team is very close and works as a team.”

“The thing I enjoy about my job the most is working with such a diverse group of students and seeing how they make progress from day to day. I enjoy working on a multidisciplinary team with the other therapists, classroom staff, and behavior staff and have learned so much from these other professionals. I also enjoy working with my students’ families to help them communicate at home. It is a great feeling when a caregiver tells you that their child communicated to them in a new way!”   

The theme of this year’s Better Hearing and Speech Month is “Connecting People”. How does your work as a speech therapist help you achieve the goal of connecting people?

“As a speech therapist, we help students find their voice and be able to effectively communicate with others. Whether that be communicating their wants or needs or communicating with their peers, it is important for each student to be able to communicate in their own way in order to connect with others and form bonds. It is amazing to be able to be a part of helping our students accomplish this.”

“This is another aspect of my job that I love. Our profession allows us the opportunity to connect with so many people daily. If there was one positive thing that came out of the pandemic, it was the fact that we had much more frequent interactions with our students’ families. We are all working on a common goal of helping our students succeed, so connecting with our students’ parents and caregivers is a key part of that success. Another way our profession helps us achieve the goal of connecting people is by working with undergraduate and graduate students just beginning their careers as SLPs. We have had the opportunity to connect with several students from various universities who have completed observation hours and/or internships at the Elizabeth Lee Black School. I believe part of my role as an SLP is to share my experience and knowledge with clinicians just entering the field, and I am so fortunate to have to opportunity to build these connections with future SLPs. Throughout my years at the Barber National Institute, I have had the pleasure of collaborating with colleagues from various companies, focusing primarily on the use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Through these relationships, I have been fortunate to present at many conferences and have built many strong connections with so many amazing people.”

“Communicating basic wants and needs is one way we build connections. Another way is allowing the students to share and express their opinions through their voice verbally or non-verbally using AAC. With communication comes connections and as speech therapists we specialize in helping people communicate which results in connections built.”

“I think communicating, both verbally and non-verbally, is what connects people. As an SLP, it is a great feeling to provide my students with a way to express their thoughts and feelings so they can share these with others. When a student is introduced to a communication method that works for them, a whole world of opportunities opens up for them and they can begin to connect with those around them.”

What treatments or techniques have you found to be most effective in helping students reach their full potential?

“A strategy that I have found effective with our students is allowing them to lead and building language around their interactions and what they say. This is like using errorless learning, in a way that lets the student guide the session. It is also a fun way to get to know your students and see their personalities come out.”

” One of the many things I love about the field of speech-language pathology is that it is so diverse. However, because of that, it can be quite overwhelming and challenging to keep up with the ever-changing and treatments, techniques, and advancements in technology. Speech and language development is not black and white, which makes it nearly impossible to use one treatment or technique. I could have two students working on the exact goal, yet I address those goals using two completely different strategies. It is important to listen to our students, learn their interests, and be willing to adapt our therapy interventions to reach the students’ full potential. It is necessary to always be up to date on evidence-based treatments and techniques to help students make continual progress, no matter how great or small.”

“The introduction of a core vocabulary approach gives students a functional vocabulary to use across many situations and activities. They are the words we use most frequently on a daily basis. It helps the students move beyond just requesting items. Also, I have found modeling to be one of the most important techniques that a student’s communication partner can provide. Whether they are verbal or nonverbal using AAC, providing a model of how to communicate in different situations helps the students learn most effectively. Then give them the opportunity to try communicating in these situations that are modeled for them.”

“I have found that the strategy of “following the student’s lead” is really beneficial during therapy sessions. By doing this, I am showing the student that they have control over their environment through the things they do and say. It encourages students to express themselves and shows them that what they say matters!”

I would like to thank our remarkable speech therapists Abigail Hagen, Amy Moczulski, Carly Stewart, and Stephanie Jordan.

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Celebrating Nurse Appreciation Week

Nurses have always played an important role in my life. My grandfather was the first male nurse at St. Vincent Hospital, and went on to become a physician. My Aunt Marion (Dr. Barber’s sister) was the Director of Nursing by day at St. Vincent, and at night was the caregiver of neighbors in need on Erie’s East side (then known as “Kingtown.”)

Aunt Marion was certainly a mentor for my late sister JoAnne, who knew that she wanted to be a nurse even as a preteen. To my Dad, a nursing degree meant that JoAnne could not go to St. Mary’s College, but she could go to Georgetown. JoAnne loved being the Litchfield school nurse, and often shared stories of helping children and families.

And so, as we celebrate Nurses Appreciation Week, I’d like to take a moment to recognize the Elizabeth Lee Black School nurses, Keri Moore, Helen Boyer, and Etta Loreti. I know that we are fortunate to have such dedicated, caring nurses in our school. Keri, Helen, and Etta can always be counted on to respond to student’s medical needs calmly, with expert nursing care and a smile.

I thought that I would ask them a few questions to gain insight into their work at the Barber National Institute and the Elizabeth Lee Black School.

Keri started with us in August 2021 and had worked for Saint Vincent Hospital prior to her joining us. She says, “We have the most amazing staff!  Everyone here at ELBS has a heart of gold.  Watching the teachers and staff interact with these students every day is truly inspiring!  From top to bottom, everyone who works here goes above and beyond to care for and educate our students.  Administration does a great job making sure their employees feel valued and appreciated.  We really have a great team and I’m so blessed to be a part of it.”

Helen joined the Barber National Institute in 2005 where she worked in the Adult Program until coming to the school in May 2021, Helen says, “I love working with my coworkers. They are all very caring and patient people. Because I am relatively new, I found I can count on everyone here for accurate information, to best care for each child. And of course there’s the Children, I love caring for them; they are good for my soul. I will be here till I retire.”

Etta has been with the Barber National Institute for 6 year and the Elizabeth Lee Black School for 9 months. Before coming the the Barber National Institute, she worked at Perseus House and Sarah Reed Children’s Center. Etta enjoys the friendly staff, cheerful school environment and working with the children. She also likes helping people and seeing them improve.

On behalf of our students and faculty, thank you Keri, Helen, and Etta for everything you do to help make dreams come true for our children and their families.

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National Teacher Appreciation Week

The first week of May is full of moments created to celebrate and appreciate many people in our lives – teachers, nurses, therapists, paraeducators, behavior specialists and many, many support personnel.

We agree with former First Lady Michelle Obama, who aptly stated: “At a time when more and more jobs require a good education, teacher’s week couldn’t be more important.” A good teacher can change a student’s life, creating worlds of opportunity, shaping the future and inspiring dreams. I think back to a teacher who influenced me and remember Sister Eulalia from Villa Maria grade school. Sister Eulalia was an English scholar, who instilled in us the knowledge and importance of good grammar. I spent hours diagramming prayers as a means of understanding subject/verb agreement, the error in dangling participles, and sentence fragments. When I entered Sister’s classroom, my knees were shaking and my hands were trembling, I was so nervous that I would make a mistake! However, I survived and today I credit my writing skills to Sister Eulalia.

Of course, I also look back to the teachers who had such a positive impact on Ryan’s learning. The first that comes to mind is Mrs. T, a retired first grade teacher who tutored Ryan from first grade to fifth grade. Mrs. T’s guiding philosophy was that if a student isn’t learning, then we must change how we teach him – a sentiment that echoes throughout the Elizabeth Lee Black School.  

And of course, I cannot forget my aunt, Dr. Gertrude Barber, our founder. She considered herself first and foremost a teacher. She was President of a multi-million-dollar agency, but her greatest happiness was found in being with her children, her students.

I encourage you to think back over your education. Who were the shining lights? Who inspired your dreams? It’s never too late to reach out to those people who made an impact on your life to tell them “Thank You!”

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The Annual Art Show: A Barber National Institute Tradition

The annual Art Show has been a Barber National Institute tradition since 2006. Initially, we wanted to have an event that would celebrate “April is Autism month”. As we discussed ideas, felt that it was important to recognize both children and adults with autism and other disabilities as well professional and amateur artists who support people with disabilities. And so began the first Art Show.

We were supported by the Erie Art Museum who loaned us their panels for the exhibit. There was an overwhelming response the first year. People wanted to participate, and the public responded with their interest in attending the show.

The show grew over the years until 2019 when we were forced by the pandemic to move to a virtual platform.  Yet the show continued to grow as persons across the country could participate since it was virtual.

This year, we have nearly 300 paintings, photography, and scriptures from youth, adult, adult amateur and adult professional artists.

Our chair for the past several years are Doctors Jay and Mona Kang.  Why are they involved?  Their interview along with their children tells the story….

The Art Show will be held online from Monday, April 25 through Friday, May 6. The Art Show is open to the public. Find more information at https://www.barberinstitute.org/events/art-show.

The Art Show is a great way to support the work of local artists, and it also serves to support the mission of the Barber National Institute. Purchases and donations alike help bring life-sustaining care to the populations we serve. Artists donate 20% of their proceeds to the Barber National Institute and some actually donate 100%.

Don’t delay or your favorite piece of art may be sold.

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Celebrating Volunteers throughout The Years

National Volunteer Week is an opportunity to recognize the impact of volunteer service and the power of volunteers to tackle society’s greatest challenges, to build stronger communities and be a force that transforms the world. Each year, we shine a light on the people and causes that inspire us to serve, recognizing and thanking volunteers who lend their time, talent, and voices to make a difference in their communities.

National Volunteer Week was established in 1974 and has grown exponentially each year, with thousands of volunteer projects and special events scheduled throughout the week. Today, as people strive to lead lives that reflect their values, the expression of civic life has evolved. Whether online, at the office, or the local food bank; whether with a vote, a voice, or a wallet – doing good comes in many forms, and we recognize and celebrate them all.

Although 1974 marked the beginning of National Volunteer Week, volunteerism has been the core of the Barber National Institute since its beginning in 1952. The teacher and aides who established with Dr. Barber the first classroom in 1952 were not paid staff but volunteers who were retired school teachers or parents. They believed that children with disabilities should be able to receive an education and so they volunteered.

Often these women continued to work as volunteers for many years since there was no funding. There was a need for fundraisers so that these “volunteers” could in fact be paid. Again, it was volunteers who stepped to the plate and chaired teas, telethons, and card parties. Do we still depend on volunteers today? Yes, definitely!

Hundreds of event volunteers assist with the Beast on the Bay and other events, including the Art Show, Shillelagh golf tournaments, Ladies Only Luncheon, and the Christmas Ball. We are so fortunate that the men and women of our community are able and willing to give their time and talents to support children and adults of the Barber National Institute.

Over the next two weeks the children in our school are holding a penny drive to help the children of Ukraine. If you would like to assist, you can drop off your donation at any of our main entrances in Erie. As one of our children said to me, “It’s our job to help the kids of Ukraine.”

Have you ever considered volunteering? If not, why not? Check out our website and learn about the various opportunities available. 70 years later, volunteerism is alive and well as the Barber National Institute!

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Easter Memories

I started thinking about Easter over the years…some wonderful memories! As you can see, Ryan did not like the Easter Bunny!

Happy Easter to Everyone!

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Week of the Young Child: A Chance to Step It Up

Established in 1971, The Week of the Young Child™ (WOYC), April 2-8 is a fun-filled week celebrating early learning, young children, their teachers, families, and communities. The 2022 theme is ‘step it up’. Why ‘step it up’? The Early Childhood years from birth to age eight lay the foundation for a child’s later success in their academic and social life. However, the pandemic took its toll on young children with the multiple and random closings of our schools and child care programs. Learning loss was inevitable, so we must all ‘step it up.’ The Barber National Institute has been committed to Early Childhood Education since our beginnings in 1952.

What do we have available in 2022?

Pre-K Counts program based in Erie and Corry is part of a statewide initiative to provide a high-quality full-time preschool experience free of charge for children of qualifying families. Pre-K Counts is designed to assist children who may be considered “at risk” because of the family’s economic, language, cultural or other circumstances which may prevent the child from developing the skills necessary to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

Happy Hearts Early Childhood Program, a fully inclusive preschool, provides a state-of-the-art educational experience where all preschool children have the opportunity to learn and grow. We began this program in the early 1980s, to allow neighborhood children and children of our staff to attend preschool. Today, we serve typical children as well as children with developmental delays. Happy Hearts is a four-out-of-four Keystone Stars Certified program and aligns with a progressive, innovative curriculum that encourages the development of creativity, self-direction, positive peer interactions and communication. Our history of providing individualized education allows us to guide each child toward his or her potential.

The Elizabeth Lee Black School, an Approved Private School, serves children with autism, intellectual and physical disabilities, and behavioral challenges who need intensive educational programming and therapies.

Our involvement with young children doesn’t end there. By partnering with organizations such as the PNC Grow Up Great program, we help to promote and encourage all children to reach their fullest potential, while sharing the resources to help make it possible.

Check out our Facebook page to see some of the WOYC fun activities beginning with our outdoor parade on Monday.

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Let’s Move from Autism Awareness to Autism Acceptance

It’s hard to believe, but April has been recognized as Autism Awareness month since 2007.   I started writing about it in 2012.  That is the year that I began my blog…10 years ago!

As I look back over the years, I think about the enormous changes.

  • CDC recently released its latest prevalence rate estimates, one in 44 or 2.27% of 8-year-old American children have Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is a 23% increase from two years ago when the figure was 1:54.
  • Because so much publicity has been directed to the signs of autism, parents are often the first to recognize the possible characteristics of autism and consult their physician.  This is a very important outcome, as early diagnosis is critical.
  • Educational opportunities increased tenfold as colleges and universities began offering special education certification in the field of autism. More qualified teachers allowed schools to expand programs for children with autism.  
  • We also began to understand fully that autism is a spectrum disorder and that we have children who are on all levels: mild, moderate, and severe.  For each, a different level of educational programming is mandated for their free appropriate education. COVID brought many challenges for our students…and we are still working through them.
  • We have made significant progress in improving access to opportunity for persons with autism. However, we know that there are still significant gaps in employment and income.

 At the Barber National Institute, we strive to be part of the fabric of our society and have found Erie to be a welcoming community.  That has been because of Acceptance.  We have made great strides, but more can be done…. through Acceptance.

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Continuing the Legacy of Making Dreams Come True

Each year, the Religious Studies Department at Mercyhurst University awards an individual or organization the Archbishop Oscar Romero Award for “living the call of faith and justice in an extraordinary manner.”

This year marks the 30th year for the award named in honor of now Saint Oscar Romero, a staunch advocate for the poor and oppressed in El Salvador. Saint Oscar Romero gave his life fighting for the dignity and human rights of those who were excluded from society and marginalized for centuries.

Barber National Institute was nominated this year for the Archbishop Oscar Romero Award, and I was honored to accept this award on behalf of the organization Dr. Gertrude Barber founded 70 years ago. On the evening of March 24, I gave a speech on the campus of Mercyhurst University titled “Continuing the Legacy of Making Dreams Come True.”

Like Saint Oscar Romero, Dr. Gertrude Barber was called to help those who had been excluded from society and given little opportunity to grow and thrive as valued members in their own communities.

Dr. Gertrude Barber entered the Erie School District as a young teacher in the 1930s. Her first assignment was working with children with mild disabilities at Wayne School. While these children were deemed to be educable by the school system, there were many students with disabilities who were denied access to a quality education. Their only option was to either be sent to an institution or kept at home indefinitely.

With limited funding and legal restrictions in offering early intervention programs to aid children with disabilities, Dr. Barber organized the first parent group in 1950. If the city and state would not provide for these children, then the parents must start a school of their own.

The first class for children with disabilities was held at the YWCA in April of 1952. As the Y become too small for Dr. Gertrude’s programs, a permanent home was found in 1958 at the Lakeview Hospital at 136 East Avenue.

Institutional reforms began in the 1960s, and Dr. Gertrude played a major role in providing her expertise on the challenges that face people with disabilities and their families. By the early 1970s, there was a push to move people with disabilities out of institutions and back to their home communities. Today, the Barber National Institute operates 95 group homes throughout Erie, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, where adults with disabilities are supported as they live, work, and worship in their own communities and neighborhoods.

In 2000, Dr. Barber passed away, but her work continues. Today the organization she founded serves 6,300 children, adults, and families across Pennsylvania.       

Throughout our history, we have been committed to the concept of social justice in the equitable treatment of people with disabilities. Our progress toward this ideal was slow initially and was not without its unique challenges, but today the Barber National Institute serves as a beacon for those who are committed to improving the lives of people with disabilities.

If you would like a copy of the PowerPoint presentation from the Archbishop Oscar Romero Award reception, please email Grace Martin at GraceMartin@barberni.org or call 814-878-5903.

Dr. Maureen Barber-Carey, center, accepts the Archbishop Oscar Romero Award presented by Mercyhurst University.  Joining her at left is Dr. Verna Marina Ehret, Professor and Chair, the Department of Religious Studies; and Dr. Kathleen A. Getz, right, president of Mercyhurst University
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