The sights and sounds are familiar to parents everywhere: a gaggle of children racing each other from one fence post to the next; two friends maneuvering an armful of miniature cars and dump trucks across a plastic picnic table; a small girl armed with a red plastic ball chasing down playmates twice her size.
Standing in the middle of the daily whirlwind of activity at E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program, a visitor would have to squint hard to differentiate it from several dozen other local daycares. But despite appearances, the New Bern program is addressing an often hidden need, one that all too often goes underserved in small communities throughout the nation.
Located on Trent Boulevard, E.M.P.O.W.E.R. (Engaging and Motivating People through Opportunities, Wellness, Education and Recreation) is a nonprofit Easterseals UCP program that serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as their typically developing siblings.
“We definitely consider ourselves helping the whole family,” explained Site Director Katrina Taylor, during an interview at her office. “The biggest benefit of our program to the community is that it really meets a large need that has gone unmet for years, which is just having an array of services for individuals with disabilities to take advantage of, which children that are considered normal just take for granted.”
The program, which opened in December 2016, was initially funded by a grant provided by Trillium Health Resources, a local governmental agency that manages mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability services in eastern North Carolina. It serves individuals from ages five to 22.
“There were two administrators from Easterseals who wrote a research funded proposal to Trillium,” said Taylor. “Trillium loved the idea because it helped to meet the needs of a long list of individuals who are waiting to receive services.”
E.M.P.O.W.E.R. works with individuals with an array of needs, including autism, cerebral palsy, and mild to severe attention deficit disorder.
One of the keys to meeting those needs was choosing the right staff for the program. According to Taylor, Easterseals provides employees with extensive training, both face-to-face and online. All staff members are required to undergo nonviolent crisis intervention training and are given guidance in dealing with individuals with specific disabilities.
But the most important factor when hiring staff may be one that’s hard to quantify, said Taylor.
“We look at the staff that we bring on, how they might fit and their ability to handle children with disabilities and any unexpected behaviors. A lot of it comes down to personality.”
For staff member Jamie Heath, who has been with the program since it opened, the decision to work with children with disabilities was as much personal as professional.
”I have a lot of family members that have special needs. My son has different types of disabilities and I have two sets of twins in my family that both have autism,” she explained.
Mackenzie Carmon, who was in his third week at E.M.P.O.W.E.R., said the job allowed him to utilize skills not usually accessed in the “normal” workplace.
”I like helping people, helping kids. It’s a challenge to learn something new about different people. It takes a positive person, a person who acts like they have a little bit of kid in them,” he noted.
E.M.P.O.W.E.R. provides after school pick up for students at area elementary, middle and high schools. Arriving at the site at approximately 3:30 p.m. each day, the students are led through a series of activities that include arts and crafts, sports, and the occasional visit from a yoga instructor.
“I think this week they’re learning about animals and insects. A big focus for us is them getting their homework done, because a lot of kids fight their parents on that,” explained Glenda Lenk, assistant site director.
“Mainly you’re trying to come up with an easy way for them to learn,” added Carmon. “Sometimes they learn better if you can make it into a story. Not so much like school learning, but fun learning.”
Taylor said the students also influence the curriculum.
“They have been very vocal about what their interests are and the staff kind of move accordingly.”
In addition to the after school services, E.M.P.O.W.E.R. also offers respite care and, beginning in June, a summer camp.
Taylor said E.M.P.O.W.E.R. also hopes to initiate a health and wellness program for adults with disabilities beginning this summer. The program would serve young men and women who have aged out of the after school program.
Taylor said the service is tentatively set to begin in August, and would run Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon.
“Some of the feedback we’ve gotten from parents is that once they’re out of the school system there’s really not a lot for them to do, with the exception of some different programs that are at the community college that they can transition into,” said Taylor.
With the threat of possible funding cuts to after school and summer programs proposed in President Donald Trump’s budget, Taylor said she is keenly aware of how fragile programs like E.M.P.O.W.E.R., which rely on federal funds, have become.
“One of the biggest things is just making sure our program will be sustainable. Fundraising for us is a huge thing. Donations are huge for us. And just having parents involved as well as the community to promote the awareness of the true benefit of our program is important for us as well.”
Patte Whitfield understands those benefits all too well. The mother of five special needs children, Whitfield has long been an outspoken advocate for a program such as E.M.P.O.W.E.R. in the New Bern area.
“I don’t think most people have a good idea of the need in the community for a program like this. I think the common thought is that for kids with special needs and disabilities there’s a daycare just up the street,” she commented.
With three children, Kaden, 14, and 6-year-old twins Lainey and Oliver attending E.M.P.O.W.E.R, Whitfiled has taken over the role of president of the program’s parent advisory committee.
“Kaden has autism and dwarfism; he’s very small for his age. Oliver has significant visual and hearing impairment and severe cerebral palsy, among other things. And Lainey, while she shares some issues with Oliver, is for all intents and purposes a typical six year old,” explained Whitfield.
E.M.P.O.W.E.R. offers a far more congenial atmosphere for special needs children than typical daycares, said Whitfield. Despite the push in some quarters to “mainstream” children with mental and physical disabilities, she believes providing a sense of equality may ultimately be more important.
“I believe there’s a really strong body of evidence for kids to be with other kids that are the same as them. Inclusion is great, but there are also kids who come to a time in their life when inclusion isn’t necessarily the best thing. It’s hard to be the one kid who has a disability with 16 other kids who don’t.”
Like Taylor, Whitfield said she has concerns about the financial sustainability of programs like E.M.P.O.W.E.R.
“With all of the funding cuts that are coming down, it worries me,” she admitted. “This program being able to run itself is important to me, not just for my kids but for everybody that’s coming behind them. We’ve got to fund raise; we’ve got to get the community aware. This is an awesome program but we need the community’s help.”
Whitfield said the after school program has given her children a sense of belonging they’ve never before experienced, a reality that came into focus after Kaden was recently hospitalized for two days.
“When we got home there was a stack of get well cards, and he knew that everybody had wondered where he was and missed him,” remembered Whitfield. “I’m his mom, I can tell him all day long that I love him and miss him, but it’s a different thing knowing everybody here missed him and wanted him to come back. That adage of ‘Where everybody knows your name’ — it’s a powerful thing.”
That camaraderie is evident on any given afternoon at E.M.P.O.W.E.R., as the children file off the buses and excitedly head to their assigned activities.
“Basically, everyone you see here is my friend,” said Jerry Lotts, 14, catching his breath after a game of dodgeball. “I just think of them as being friends, I don’t think of them as weird at all.”
Lotts, who was diagnosed with autism at age 10, said the program had an immediate impact on his life.
“It’s different now because I get to play with kids like me instead of just going home and getting fussed at for not doing my chores. Now I come home and do my chores.”
Lotts said he was looking forward to taking part in the program’s summer camp activities, which will include trips to Creekside and Fort Totten parks.
“If I didn’t get to come here it would be sad,” he offered.
Nearby, Kaden Ehlers and Konner Kunigonis revved up a line of toy cars before sending them crashing across a tabletop.
“My favorite part is playing with the cars and hanging with my bro, Kaden,” said Kunigonis, adjusting his rakishly-cocked white fedora.
According to Lenk, the children aren’t the only ones who have found a connection through the program.
“It’s nice to see the parents come together and help each other out in different ways and the networking they bring into it,” she noted. “Because sometimes the family will have a need and another family is willing to come in and help them. It is kind of a close knit community that we’re building.”
Taylor said there are numerous ways community members can help support E.M.P.O.W.E.R.
“We need donations. And that’s not necessarily just financial; we’re always in need of different resources that aren’t always covered by our budget. So any way that the community sees fit to get involved with our program, whether it’s volunteering their hours or promoting our program to family members and church members, that’s what we need.”
Lowering her head and touching her cheek to Oliver’s, Whitfield said goodbye to her son and prepared to leave him on a day that would mark his second full week at E.M.P.O.W.E.R. Confined to his metal pediatric chair, Oliver raised his head and smiled crookedly. His friends would be arriving soon.
“My kids are just kids, they love the same things that every kid loves,” said Whitfield. “And the things that are important for my kids are the same as what’s important for every other kid. We just do it a different way.”
For more information about the E.M.P.O.W.E.R. after school program, visit their website at http://www.easterseals.com/NCVA/our-programs/childrens-services/after-school-program-new.html, call 252-670-1955, or visit their site at 1722 Trent Boulevard.