Happy Thanksgiving!

As we plan to gather for Thanksgiving this year, I know that we as a nation face many challenges, first and foremost COVID-19. However, I believe that each of us have much to be thankful for.  The poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and give thanks continuously.”

I started thinking, how frequently do I practice gratitude outside of a holiday? Personally, I must admit, not enough.  So, I did a bit of research on the impact of gratitude and learned:

Gratitude encourages giving and giving encourages more gratitude and the circle continues…the pay it forward concept.

Persons who practice gratitude are more empathetic and helpful to their fellow employees which can create a positive culture in the workplace.

Gratitude can help improve sleep.  This is something that I practice when I cannot fall asleep. I think of all that I have to be grateful for, and yes, sleep comes quickly.

Gratitude can also help improve your physical health, including memory, blood pressure and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and cortisol levels.

If you are worrying now, as I am, that you are not experiencing gratitude as much as you should, there are ways you can “cultivate” gratitude in your life.

These are a few of the actions that Ryan and I are taking:

We are resurrecting the gratitude journal he began in the Spring.  Each morning after breakfast he writes something he is grateful for. He loved this and he filled a notebook, but then it fell to the wayside.

Write thank you notes (Ryan writes emails) to people who do an act of kindness for him.  I find that people love getting a handwritten mailed note.

Have positive notes somewhere in your office/home that makes you stop and feel gratitude.  We post a note on our refrigerator. Every time we open the door it makes us stop and think what we are grateful for.

So, what are you grateful for?????

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ryan and Maureen

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Celebrating American Education Week

This week is American Education Week, a wonderful opportunity to celebrate public education and honor individuals who are making a difference in ensuring that every child receives a quality education.

A good teacher can change a student’s life, creating worlds of opportunity, shaping the future and inspiring dreams. In honor of American Education Week, I thought I would share a story about three educators who impacted my life and Ryan’s.

Of course, I will begin with Dr. Gertrude Barber. She thought of herself first and foremost as a teacher. Yes, she was a school psychologist, a CEO, but “teacher” would have been her favorite profession.

Sister Eulalia, the principal of Villa Maria Grade School, was an English scholar par excellence. She instilled in me the knowledge and importance of good grammar. We spent hours diagramming prayers as a means of understanding subject/verb agreement, the error in dangling participles, and sentence fragments. When we entered Sister’s classroom, our knees were shaking and our hands were trembling, we were so nervous that we would make a mistake! However, we survived and today I credit my writing skills to Sister Eulalia.

Of course, I also think of the teachers who have such a positive impact on Ryan’s learning. The first that comes to mind is Mrs. T, a retired first grade teacher who tutored him 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.

Who were your shining lights? Who inspired your dreams? It’s never too late to reach out to those people who made an impact in your life to tell them “Thank You!”

P.S. Sister Eulalia was my father’s teacher at St. Ann. He never received a grade less than 100%, so I felt great pressure!

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Kind People Are My Kinda People!

It’s almost fitting that this Friday is World Kindness Day. With all the background noise we had during the last few weeks, what better way to overcome the divides of politics than with kindness?

What began 21 years ago as an effort from the World Kindness Movement is now a global movement reminding everyone of the power of kindness.  The purpose of this day is not only to highlight and encourage good deeds in the community, but to inspire others to believe that we can make a difference one act at a time.  

Ryan and I plan to celebrate World Kindness Day. He came up with a list of ideas that he could do. I listed them in his order:

• Holding door for people

• Saying hello and introducing yourself

• Compliment someone

• Give flowers to Aunt Jeanne

• Thank Jack for being a good friend

• Thank Mom for being the best mom

(Not sure why I am last??)

Why not sit with your child and develop your list? I definitely want a kinder world. Each of us truly make the difference!

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Caring for the Caregiver

November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of the more than 40 million people in the United States who serve as unpaid caregivers to family, friends and neighbors. Caregivers work long days and spend countless hours to meet and anticipate the needs of their loved ones, be they their children, spouse or friend. We all know a caregiver and many of us may be caregivers ourselves.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and as the case numbers are increasing, it is natural to feel stressed, isolated, and worried. In a University of Connecticut study of 400 caregivers, 225 of whom had autism and other developmental disabilities and the remainder had typically-developing children, both groups said their worries had increased and their ability to participate in self-care activities decreased due to the pandemic. Caregivers of the typical children reported struggling with their inability to see family or friends. By contrast, those with children with developmental disabilities cited much greater caregiving challenges, as well as depression and anxiety. They were more likely to report having less support for their child’s educational goals, difficulty accessing childcare, loss of employment or reduced work hours as well as increased financial strain.

So, what should we as caregivers or friends of caregivers do?

The first step in being a good caregiver is to TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF! You need to do this so you can take better care of those you assist and support. Try to maintain healthy routines. Do simple activities that help you keep calm. Practice deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, set aside time to exercise. Share your emotions with a family member or friend. You don’t have to do this on your own.

If you are a friend of a caregiver, reach out to her/him. A simple phone call, an offer to watch the child so Mom/Dad can take a break, or a “dinner to go” can make a difference.

Another consideration is to look to virtual learning. Autism Speaks has created a new Caregiver Quick Tips, a video training series to help caregivers support their child’s development in the home. This can be found on the Autism Speaks YouTube channel. There are many resources on support for caregivers on YouTube as well.

Join me in recognizing these extraordinary moms and dads, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors for their faithfulness and generosity. That IS what America is all about!

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Memories Sweeter than Candy!

Each year, as the month of October draws to a close, I look forward to the spooktacular fun that fills the school!  The parade this year was Virtual, but it was still fun. The parade always brings back sweet memories of the children who have walked the parade route over the years and all of the staff and parents who join in the fun.

I’m also reminded of my Halloweens with Ryan, especially his first as Superman.

I hope you enjoy a few of the awesomely adorable, spooky, ghoulish and fun photos of my sweet Halloween memories. And I hope that your Halloween is safe and filled to the brim with fun! Happy Halloween!

Ryan’s first Halloween (Superman) 1994
Ryan (5yrs) dressed as a spaceman.

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What makes our school special?

What makes our school special?

I strongly suggest our faculty! Our special education teachers, speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, behavior specialists and many others are truly the heartbeat of the Elizabeth Lee Black School.

As October is Physical Therapy Month, I’d like to focus on our two physical therapists, Christina Gross, P.T. and Barbara Gleason, P.T. They are amazing women!

I remember when one of our students walked across the stage at graduation…and when he came to us he could not walk! There were tears in his parents’ eyes and my own. Our physical therapists, school team and his parents made all of the difference!

I asked the therapists a few questions and would like to share their responses with you.

Chris Gross, P.T. (left) has been with BNI for seven years, and Barb Gleason, P.T. (right) has been with BNI for two years. Photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Question: How is being a physical therapist at our school the same or different from your previous work?

Barb: There is a feeling in this environment that is more caring both for students and staff. There is a sense of family which you don’t find in many settings.

Chris: I agree with Barb. There is great support from our supervisor which is especially helpful as she has her clinical expertise as an occupational therapist.

The ability to work 1:1 is important. There is an emphasis on quality care not productivity. Certainly, school-based therapy is very different from a clinical setting.

Barb: In other environments, you only have a short-term involvement with the patient, whereas in the school, you get to know the children and families, establish relationships. Progress may be slower, but it is amazing the progress the children make. Staff are willing to listen and implement programs.

Question: What is the greatest challenging you are experiencing in this world of COVID -19?

Chris: This profession is not made for remote learning. Seeing the children and parents on the screen and providing guidance is not what PT is.

Barb: The profession is based on movement. You need enough room to do various activities and many homes don’t have that room available. It can be a challenge, a bumpy road to navigate.

The ladies agreed that a positive outcome is that there is more interaction with parents. You may receive additional information that you did not know or would not have received except with the direct contact with the parent(s). You certainly get to know the parents much better.

Thank you, Chris Gross and Barb Gleason, for your commitment to our children, our families and our staff! You are very special!

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What You Think is Your Greatest Fear Will Be Your Greatest Blessing, Guest Blog by the Cummings Family

In honor of National Down Syndrome Awareness Month, I asked parents, Chris and Barbara Cummings, if they would write about their amazing and beautiful daughter, Faith.

Their story is so moving, it brought tears to my eyes. I hope it inspires you as it inspired me.

– Maureen

faith_1As I reflect on my family and the life we have, it is a moment of complete thankfulness and raw emotion. Many in today’s society would not consider my family and our life as a blessing, but I can tell you without a doubt that the journey I am about to tell you has made each member of our family more compassionate, humble, and, to be honest, better human beings.

After several years of struggling with infertility, we finally found out that we were pregnant in 2001 and shortly after discovered we were having twins! We glided through the pregnancy untilfaith_2 about 32 weeks, when we were sent to Magee Women’s Hospital for an emergency C-Section. This is when we had the opportunity to finally meet our little boy and girl. Oh, did I mention that we were shocked to find out that our little girl had Down Syndrome? I couldn’t breathe when the Doctor told me…and yes, we literally broke down and cried in complete devastation. Specialists began coming in and talking to us, and we just couldn’t come to terms with what just happened in our life. We quickly found out that our daughter, Faith Elizabeth, would need open heart surgery.  After a few weeks, we brought our babies home and started to come to grips with our new life.

I went in and out of depression for several months, but God decided it was time to put me to my knees and ask for strength and forgiveness for all the negative emotions and thoughts constantly nagging at me. It was at this time I began to understand that “What was my biggest fear would become my greatest blessing”.

As Faith grew and we became accustomed to all the therapists, doctors, and counselors we became advocates for her. We learned to be joyful in every milestone no matter how long it took or how far behind she was compared to her brother. My love and appreciation for Faith being “Faith” made me realize what life was really about.

faith_3At 10 years old we found out that Faith needed right hip reconstruction surgery and the process was not going to be easy. This surgery would require Faith to be in a cast from her waist down for 3 months. We put a hospital bed in our living room and each challenging day we marked off the calendar. Faith was amazing through the process, and she was a warrior for all she had endured in her short 10 years of life.

 When we settled into our routine through the years, a new obstacle was presented to us. In school we began to see behavior issues and struggled for many years to try and figure out what was going on in that little head of hers. In 4th grade our elementary school started an emotional support classroom that Faith loved and did very well in. But as we all know, nothing lasts forever and we had to make a decision on where she would attend Junior High. Our home school did not have the resources to take Faith on, so she went into a Life Skills classroom and it just did not go well. We were at our wits’ end trying to figure out what we were going to do. It was also about this time that Faith was diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum. Tears, sleepless nights, so many prayers, and many meetings later we were introduced to the Elizabeth Lee Black School, and I cannot tell you how this school has changed our life as well as Faith’s. The knowledge and patience cannot be matched. Faith still has her bad days, but she has flourished there. From the bottom of our hearts we cannot thank the Barber Center enough for the mission they have.

faith_4When I look at our dear Faith, I see an individual who: loves without judgement, finds joy in moments we wouldn’t, and teaches patience and the opportunity to always love selflessly. We raised her to do everything her twin brother and younger sister do. She loves to swing, listen to music, go on vacation, play sports, swim, and go tubing on the boat. Her favorite movies are the Home Alone series. We love to shop for cute clothes and shoes. Faith loves getting her hair cut and styled, and she especially likes pedicures. So, yes, she may have some differences but she likes all the same things as us. If I had to offer advice to a family that recently got a diagnosis of a child with Down Syndrome it would be: Do not fear the journey you are about to go on. You are going to fall in love with the life you have been given.  Step back, take a deep breath, and let this gift show you the life lessons you never anticipated. I guarantee you will be a better person. Embrace the world of difference as an opportunity to teach your family and others to look beyond the imperfections and see life as a way to love, learn, enjoy, and give back. Thank you Faith Elizabeth Cummings for being the one to teach our family these important attributes.


Chris and and Barb Cummings live in Cochranton, PA and are the proud parents of Faith, Jacob, and Josie Cummings. They own and operate Pennsylvania Artificial Limb and Brace Co., Inc. with locations in Erie, Greenville, and Ashtabula, OH. As a family they enjoy to travel and spend time outdoors.

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Persons with Disabilities in the Workforce: Reliable and Dependable!

As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness month, I wondered, “What has been the impact of the pandemic?”

To find out, I interviewed three of our Supported Employment (SE) staff, Marquis Wallace, Transitional Team Leader, Amy Bacon, Program Specialist, and Cammy McGhee, Program Specialist, and gleaned a great deal of information.

The pandemic actually has had a positive impact on SE. There continue to be many new opportunities for jobs that involves cleaning. No longer is it a “stigmatized” task. Essential employers are very concerned about “high touch” areas and the necessity for ongoing cleaning and disinfecting. Customers want to be assured that all areas are disinfected. Employers often did not have sufficient staff to complete these tasks. Additionally, some of their employees were reluctant to leave their homes, so they turned to SE.

Our individuals are resilient. The rest of the world may have been afraid, but our individuals were ready to work. Businesses that worked with us during previous occasions already understood that individuals with disabilities are reliable and dependable. New businesses, such as Golden Corral, knew us by reputation as a valued source for employees. We also found that some businesses, such as ServiceMaster Clean, wanted to expand their workforce to meet the new needs. As we are hopefully coming out of the pandemic, we are finding more businesses are considering us as a source for employees.

Supported Employment is celebrating its 35th year. Thank you to the businesses that continue to support our efforts to expand the number of persons with disabilities in the workforce. Please see below a listing of the Erie businesses which have hired persons with disabilities. It’s a win/win opportunity for employers and persons with disabilities!

Advanced Welding TechnologiesMcDonald’s (Buffalo Road)
Barber National InstituteMillcreek Mall Food Court
Bello’s Market (West 32nd Street)North East Alliance Christian Child Care Center
Bello’s Market (West 8th Street)Nunzi’s Restaruant
Camp Fitch YMCAONEX, Inc.
Country Fair (Station Road)Penn State Behrend Housing and Food Services
Country Fair (Wesleyville)Pennsylvania Blind Association Services
Elizabeth Lee Black SchoolPeterson’s Property Maintenance Inc.
Ember + ForgePlayway Loving Child Care Center
F3 MetalworxQuality Inn & Suites
Foam Fabricators, Inc.ServiceMaster Clean
Giant Eagle SupermarketTech Tank
Golden CorralThe Crick Coffee House & Eatery
Grape Vine Laundry & LinnensU Pick Six Harbor House
Harborcreek Giant EagleU Pick Six Public House
Jimmy John’sU Pick Six Tap House
Lake Shore Country ClubWendy’s (Peach Street)
LECOM Dental SchoolYMCA (Downtown)
Little Wonder’s Child CareYMCA (Harborcreek)
Main Street Cakery Care 
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Happy World Teacher’s Day!

Join with me as we celebrate World Teacher’s Day!

At the Elizabeth Lee Black School, Barber National Institute, we regard all of our school staff as teachers. Whether they are a special education teacher, therapist, para educator, caseworker, or behavior specialist, their role is providing a highly specialized learning experience for our students.

We recently celebrated Employee Recognition Day, in which we honor our staff who have been with us five years and up. Today, I would like to share the thoughts of some of these staff with you when I asked the question, “Why have you remained a committed staff at the Elizabeth Lee Black School?”

Anne DeLuca, Special Education Teacher, 40 Years

“Because of the People:

The children and the families that I have gotten to know, work with and learn from inspire me every day.

The Staff. They are the most knowledgeable, creative, resourceful, fun and funny people you could find anywhere. And we’re all working together on the same goal. You certainly can’t beat that.

Because of the “Heart.”

As long as I have worked here (and it’s been a long time) there hasn’t been one day, no matter how discouraging, difficult or frustrating , that I haven’t had something in that day, that made me smile and laugh; and that’s why I always want to come back tomorrow.”

Cindy Priester, Education Program Coordinator and Occupational Therapist, 30 Years

“I started as an Occupational Therapist (OT) in the school program, adding on both Girard and Corry satellite programs, infant toddler,  family preschool groups in the blue house, OT consult to group homes, orthopedic clinic and amazing projects like kayaking, adapted biking and mini Beast. Before heading back to the school program. I traveled to Florida to present at an international conference on kayaking and we won the Pennsylvania Occupational Therapy Association state award for adaptations for our kayak camp.

I have many memories of great staff, students and families but to watch a student come onto the stage to get their diploma is still the most wonderful time.”

Ann Ellison, Behavior Supports Coordinator, 25 Years

“I wanted to share my thoughts about what has kept me at BNI for so long. I started here right out of college and it was supposed to be a temporary job – but I loved it – the people we help, the staff and the mission. I worked a few other places after I got my graduate degree but BNI eventually drew me back. I think it was the connection with the people we serve and the staff that brought me back. The teamwork here is amazing. It’s a privilege to be part of team in which everyone works together with passion and creativity to help our students grow into their best selves. There is a sense of possibility and hope that fills this place. Every day I am reminded that love matters, growth happens quietly in tiny steps and we are all stronger and more fragile than we realize. I can honestly say I have received much more than I have given. Thanks for the opportunity!”

Julie Moore, Special Education Teacher, 15 Years

“When I began teaching at BNI I couldn’t help but fall in love with my special needs students. I enjoy the challenge of constantly creating ways to teach each one according to the way they learn and thrive. The school environment and community is just like a second family to me. There is such a high regard for the students and their well-being. I believe in that mission and I am proud to be a part of it. “

Amy Moczulski, Speech Pathologist, 10 Years

“When I think about the many reasons why I love working at the Elizabeth Lee Black School, the number one thing that keeps me motivated and brings me joy at work is the amazing students that I work with each day. I love our diverse group of learners, and I am continually challenged to find ways to meet their complex communication needs. I am so fortunate to work in a setting where I continue to learn and grow professionally from my colleagues but also from the students.”

Randy Schlegel, Behavior Specialist, 10 Years

“I have remained a committed staff member because of the genuine care that everyone has for the people we serve. Everyone truly wants the best for our students and will go out of their way to assist and support them. Working with such dedicated people and watching our students learn and grow is truly a blessing.”

I, too, am truly honored to be part of the Barber National Institute Team! Dr. Barber would be so proud of their many accomplishments!

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ELBS Updates!

Now that Elizabeth Lee Black School has been opened for three weeks, I thought that I would give you an update.

First and foremost, we have had a very strong return to school.

I truly believe that the five months of planning, brainstorming, identifying potential problems and then looking for solutions paid off! Certainly, there are and will always be “bumps in the road,” but the faculty and the administrative team have worked together and I am pleased to say school is going well!

We developed three options for students to learn this Fall: in-person instruction, remote, and hybrid (a combination of in-school and remote). Of the 180 current students, approximately 40 chose hybrid/remote. I believe that it was very important to give the students and families the opportunity to return in person safely, but also give them the opportunity to learn from home. The strategy has worked tremendously well. Because many of our students chose to go either hybrid or remote, our classes are quite small with only four or five students per room. Our students and families are truly grateful and happy to return to the structure and support of a typical school day.

Some additional highlights include:

• We have incorporated an “outdoor” classroom for our Pre-K Counts program and are utilizing outdoor spaces as much as possible for all the classrooms. We know that the children are safest—and in many cases, the happiest—with outdoor learning.

• Through the overwhelming support of our IT department, we have embraced remote learning both synchronous and asynchronous for those families who prefer to access take-home paper activities. There is a learning curve, but we have come miles since we began utilizing the Box platform and GoToMeeting in March. We currently are investigating other platforms such as Schoology and Microsoft Teams to determine what works best for our students and families.

• Most of our students came to school the first day wearing a mask and have continued to wear it throughout the day. To see three year old children wearing a mask without complaining was a surprise that we did not anticipate. One of the children actually said to me, “I love my mask!” I attribute this to the many communications we had this summer providing suggestions for parents as to how to help their child become accustomed to wearing a mask. One of the best videos was Julia from Sesame Street (https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2020/09/23/sesame-street-helping-kids-with-autism-learn-to-wear-face-masks/29004/) practicing mask wearing. Certainly, we have students with whom we are working to slowly acclimate them to wearing a mask.

• We have, as a goal, to make sure that if a student must be away from school due to quarantine, he or she will still be able to learn. All of our school districts have supported our students by providing them with the technology with wither a Chrome Book or iPad. This has been invaluable as a very large percentage of our students did not have technology in their home.

• We have an abundant amount of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), whether it is masks, gloves, shields or other protective equipment. Knowing that there would be shortages, we aggressively began our efforts in March and continued throughout the summer months. We anticipate shortages going into winter so we continue to expand our resources. Mask-Erie, under the leadership of Bridget Foust, has provided us with 4000 masks for our students and individuals. We wanted our faculty, families, students and the community as a whole to know that we were doing everything possible to assure a safe return to school and work.

I am truly inspired by the creativity, ingenuity and initiative of the Barber National Institute staff, families and community as they came together to meet the challenges of COVID-19. I will continue to update you on our progress. Yes, it definitely is a “work in progress.”

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