This week UCP of Greater Cleveland is happy to welcome Monica Sass, a junior at Hawken School, as our guest blog contributor. Monica recently visited UCP of Greater Cleveland for a class assignment. Thank you, Monica, for writing this fantastic blog post!
Born in 2003 with a severe heart defect, no one thought Braden was going to survive, let alone live a full and happy life. Eighteen months and twelve surgeries later–including three open-heart surgeries–Braden’s heart was strong enough that he could go home. But because of how much time he had to spend in the hospital and not exerting himself, Braden faced developmental setbacks. Braden couldn’t sit up by himself, let alone crawl, walk, or talk, and there was no hope that he would gain independence, since no one thought he could acquire these important skills.
Standing at 4’7’’ with high cheekbones and wavy blonde hair that hangs down to his ears, I would have never known just looking at him that Braden has a disability. The only obvious indicator is his inability to speak clearly, with “mama” and “daddy” the only words escaping his slack mouth. In speech therapy, Braden chews on Slim Jims and Twizzlers, practicing using his jaw muscles and tongue, and, because he is unable to talk clearly, he signs or uses his iPad’s communication app to say when he is all done. His slightly crooked white teeth stick out of pink gums, and now he needs to learn how to make the chompers work more efficiently. When it’s time to heat up his sweet potato lunch, he walks to the microwave unassisted, something nobody could dream of happening eight years ago when he was fighting for his life.
Hearing stories like Braden’s has landed me in the waiting area of UCP on a Tuesday afternoon, and seeing these kids in action is what keeps me coming back day after day. When I received the assignment to pursue a journalism project in the University Circle area, I knew I wanted to work with kids, and after doing some research, landed at UCP with the help of Emily Hastings, the special events and marketing coordinator. I had high expectations going in, and still, they were rapidly surpassed.
A brown haired little girl plays on a green exercise ball, a bearded college student does pushups on a blue Bosu ball, a wide-eyed little boy climbs onto the giant swing; another is harnessed and hooked up to bungee cords on the Universal Exercise Machine. Everyone has a smiling, encouraging therapist, or several, within arms reach.
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Intesar, who is the director of children’s services, glances at her beeping phone, before she starts answering my questions.
As a parent, Intesar can truly relate to the struggles the parents face with starting their children in therapy. With compassionate deep brown eyes that dissolve all tension within at least a ten-yard radius, it’s no surprise that Intesar can put the parents at ease.
“The biggest fear the parents have is trusting anyone else with their children. They have just found out that their child has a disability, so the last thing they want to do is hand their child off to some stranger who says they’re going to help the child, even if doctors say that there’s nothing that can be done. It’s not that they’re scared of us specifically; it’s that they’re so protective of their children that they just can’t trust anyone. We have to make sure they know that we want to communicate with them. We need them to know that we acknowledge that they know their children best. We need their help for therapy to be successful for their children.”
Having been an occupational therapist at UCP for ten years before becoming the director of children’s services, Intesar really understands the dynamic between the therapists. She leans forward, and her gesticulation becomes even more pronounced. “Our therapists work together really well. You can’t tell if they’ve never worked together before, because everyone just works so well together.” She pauses to reveal the trademark smile once again. “It’s kind of unheard of. It’s really not something you can find everywhere. I’m really proud of how well our therapists are trained. They do such a great job with the children, and are always smiling, which really isn’t something that you would find just anywhere. UCP is really special in that our therapists really, truly care. There’s nowhere else they’d rather be, honestly.
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I was really excited to be able to shadow the therapists in the Children’s Services department at UCP, because physical and occupational therapy are the reason I’m a fully functional teenager today. I was born with a serious visual impairment and low muscle tone, so I’ve undergone a total of 12 years of physical therapy and eight years of occupational therapy to develop my muscle strength and coordination, as well as fine motor skills. The therapists I worked with as a young kid were so incredibly sweet and supportive, which played a key factor in my development, and getting to watch other therapists do the same for the kids at UCP was incredible.
I expected that the therapists would work well with the kids, but I was completely blown away with how amazingly they balance being assertive and being kind and encouraging when helping the kids reach their full potential. The definite highlight of my time here was seeing one boy on a Thursday and then again the following Monday, because even in that short amount of time, he was achieving huge goals in therapy. He was trying to turn his hand all the way over so that his palm would be facing upwards, and he had made significant progress in just a few days, and was clearly so proud of his achievement, which was amazing to be a part of. In my week at UCP, I learned a lot about how much of an impact one person can have on another, and how dramatically the kids at UCP improve because of the incredible therapists.