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Program to help navigate special-needs landscape
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Program to help navigate special-needs landscape

JCC symposium invites parents, professionals to ‘learn, connect’

Therapist Lindsey Biel, co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child, will be the keynote speaker at the JCC’s Special Needs Symposium on Feb. 13.
Therapist Lindsey Biel, co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child, will be the keynote speaker at the JCC’s Special Needs Symposium on Feb. 13.

Those caring for children with special needs — parents, caregivers, teachers, and other professionals — will have a “a day of learning and connecting” at the JCC of Central New Jersey.

The second annual Special Needs Symposium will take place at the JCC in Scotch Plains on Sunday, Feb. 13.

Mike Goldstein, the JCC’s director of programming, said the day’s informational sessions will help people connect with each other and find “ways to navigate what can be at times a very confusing landscape.” He said the symposium was part of the JCC’s commitment to serving families and individuals with special needs, and its intention is “to increase our capacity to provide programs and resources that meet their needs in the years to come.”

The program will begin with a lunch and vendor expo, to give attendees a chance to connect with one another and with those providing services and products related to special needs.

The keynote speaker will be Lindsey Biel, a pediatric occupational therapist and the co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Integration Issues.

Her talk will be followed by two “breakout” sessions featuring a choice of nine different topics, led by doctors, therapists, and lawyers.

The program will also feature a performance by The Music Connection and a screening of the award-winning documentary Autistic-Like: Graham’s Story. (Information about the program can be found www.jccnj.org/specialneeds.html.)

‘Gave us a lifeline’

Planning for the event has been spearheaded by Lori Sternberg, Amy Kolchinsky, and Cheryl Lentzner, all of Westfield, the people who started the JCC’s Special Needs Program and now head up its Parents’ Advisory Committee.

Sternberg said the decision to start the Special Needs Program at the JCC emerged from a HaDerech Leadership class she and Kolchinsky attended. “We both have children with different needs who are now in mainstream elementary school. When they were being diagnosed, there was no one to lean on for support. Now that our children are a little older, we want to provide support to other young families going through the first stages of being diagnosed, working with school districts and therapists.”

They began with a simple monthly support group and have since expanded the program to include the Annual Speakers’ Symposium, year-round shadow support for mainstream programs and enrichments at the JCC, and the Camp Yachad shadow program.

Sternberg said people coming to the Feb. 13 event “should be able to gain new insight into the latest trends in therapy, tips for working with their children at home and school, guidance through the legal rights of families, and new contacts for doctors, therapists, and vendors that sell the latest therapy tools.”

Kolchinsky said that when her and Sternberg’s children were first diagnosed in preschool, there was great comfort in being able to share the experience and resources with other parents. “Often, we would exchange information while waiting outside school to pick up our kids. These quick conversations gave us a lifeline to how to manage our daily challenges and share successful strategies and community resources,” she said. “Even though my children are older now, I still remember the feelings of isolation and seeking out parents who might be able to guide me.

“The JCC Special Needs Program seeks to fill this need in the community.”

Sternberg and Kolchinsky asked Lentzner, a close friend who was a parent and an occupational therapist, to join them in forming the support group. Lentzner told NJJN, “I felt that I was in a position to help parents, by giving them emotional support, answering questions about various therapies and the IEP [Individual Education Plan] process, and helping parents advocate for their children.

“Throughout the years, I have learned that the best way that a parent can help their child, and be a good advocate for them, is to educate themselves on both their rights as parents and the various treatment and educational options that are available for their child,” said Lentzner. “I feel that the goal of the symposium is to achieve just that.”

The symposium has been made possible with support from event sponsor AXA Advisors and a Union County HEART (History, Education & Arts Reaching Thousands) grant.

It takes “a community to raise a child,” Lentzner said, “and we hope that the community will come out and support the children and families that we at the JCC have come to embrace. We also hope the families struggling with these very issues will see that they have an accepting community with which to share, learn, and seek support at whatever stage of their journey they may find themselves.”

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