Providing an Information Network–and Safety Net–for Wilton’s Special Needs Community
SPED*NET, the Special Education Network of Wilton, Ltd., has been inspiring and empowering parents and students in Wilton for 20 years. A 501(c)(3) educational non-profit, SPED*NET was started by parents in 1998 as a PTA-based organization, in response to the realization that families like theirs with children receiving special services were in crisis and needed extra support and knowledge.
“My son and one other child were the only ones who had an autism diagnosis in the school 23 years ago. Nobody knew anything much about how to teach those kids–life skills or academically. He really paved the way for other kids with needs. He had an amazing kindergarten teacher,” says co-founder Eve Kessler, who describes how her son’s teacher pioneered inclusive instruction in Wilton, and did everything she could to keep Kessler’s son in the classroom with the other students. “She put sheets over the window because he would look outside and get distracted.”
Kessler and her co-founder Carol Kennedy, conceived the group not only as a network for information, but as a life net for parents–like themselves–who were thrust unexpectedly into the special needs maze.
“We lived through it, we live with it… it is genuine. One common thread is that our children learn differently, and at the end of the day we’re there to support each other and our kids,” Kessler adds.
“We needed to learn everything we could about our sons’ challenges and how to advocate for them,” Kennedy explains, “And, we did.” Now, both young men, 26 years old, their sons are are college graduates working in their chosen fields and pursuing their passions in New York City.
SPED*NET incorporated in 2003, with parent volunteers as its driving force and sustainable funding provided through grants. The group’s mission continues to be to empower parents, professionals, and students to become more effective advocates in their schools and communities.
Much of that work is done through providing information and access to experts through lectures and presentations, all addressing different areas of needs. Quite often, the topics are ones that all learners and families can benefit from, presenting skills that any child or parent can use.
Over the years, SPED*NET Wilton has sponsored hundreds of free presentations and workshops. Speakers have included experts in their fields, such as Rick Lavoie, Carol Tashie, Peg Dawson, Lynn Guilmette and Stephanie Madrigal, and have addressed topics as varied as inclusion, developing social skills and building and sustaining friendships, bullying, curriculum modification, Assistive Technology (AT), occupational therapy and sensory diets, music therapy and brain gym, transitioning to high school, college coaching, and how to use appropriate iPad apps. Parents have learned about federal laws and state policies, and how to read neuropsychological evaluations and write solid Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) for their children. SPED*NET has also sponsored support groups–those for moms facilitated by a social worker and others for couples facilitated by a psychologist. In 2019, SPED*NET again plans to offer psychologist-run support groups.
Partnership remains a mainstay of SPED*NET’s work. Members collaborate frequently with Wilton Youth Services, Wilton Youth Council, Wilton Public Schools, and now with Wilton’s newest organization, Wilton SEPTA (Special Education PTA). They work together to identify needs and respond in effective ways, by sharing data, ideas, knowledge and resources; and they offer evidence-based and innovative prevention and intervention strategies.
In 2008, SPED*NET published Bringing Knowledge to the Table: How to be an Effective Advocate for Your Child, a 41-page user-friendly guide that walks readers through the special services process—from the time parents think their child might be struggling to the time their teen transitions out of high school. The highly regarded reference guide was designed to support parents in becoming full partners in the education of their children, benefitting those new to the special services process and serving as a touchstone for all parents and staff to better understand the special education laws and the responsibilities of both parents and school districts.
Now, SPED*NET has just revised Bringing Knowledge to the Table, updating it to comport with current federal and state laws and language. The web-based version of the guide, which links to dozens of forms, documents and manuals created by the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Bureau of Special Education and other organizations, has also been updated with the latest links.
Bringing SPED*NET Wilton into the Future
This year, SPED*NET Wilton has a new team at the helm, with Wilton parents and advocates Fran Monro, Carolina Corrigan and Janine Kelly joining Kessler and Kennedy. All bring personal and organizational experience to the table–Corrigan and Kelly were very involved with the Parent Advisory Board, and Monro is active with Wilton’s current transition program Community Steps. Moreover, Monro’s daughters, JJ and Julia Monro, started the Top Inclusion Models club at Wilton High School, which trains student role models who volunteer their time in all four Wilton schools to ensure that all students feel accepted and included in school activities.
(pictured above: Kessler, left, with Corrigan and Kelly)
SPED*NET has an active slate of one to two presentations per month, which often appeal to parents of all children. Coming up in February are two very important presentations: on Thursday, Feb. 14, at 10 a.m.-noon SPED*NET and Wilton Library will co-sponsor “Put Your Oxygen Mask on First: Tools for Parents of Kids with Special Needs,” presented by renowned psychologist Dave Sylvestro. This interactive presentation (at Wilton Library) will discuss how parents can keep themselves “steady and ready” and learn how to manage their own needs and stress levels first, so that stress does not interfere with their parenting goals.
Sylvestro facilitates individual- and group-counseling sessions, parent support groups and Dads-Only groups; he also provides training and staff development to professionals, and presents at learning disability conferences worldwide. He served as school psychologist at Eagle Hill Schools for over 35 years and currently works in that position at The Southport School.
The following week on Thursday, Feb. 21, at 10 a.m.-noon, Colleen E. Masse, Esq. will discuss “Planning for Children with Special Needs–Now and in the Future.” (Snow Date: Friday, Feb. 22)
Attorney Masse specializes in estate and special needs planning and will discuss strategies to qualify for public benefits, protect income, and put a financial plan in place to secure your child’s future. At this presentation (at Comstock Community Center) She will explain how a child can qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Income, and health insurance through Medicaid and Medicare. She will also provide valuable information on how special needs trusts and ABLE accounts work.
Masse is a graduate of UConn Law School and has spent years working with and advocating for people with disabilities. She is experienced with the complicated Medicaid application process and has in-depth knowledge of public programs to help protect a loved one’s eligibility to receive benefits.
Visit the SPED*NET website for more information on SPED*NET Wilton and the 2018-2019 Speaker Series.