A Joyful Reunion

June 29, 2018

A Joyful Reunion

Inside the Center | Spring 2018

Every Monday as the sun hits the windows of The Childhood League Center, teachers and staff work to set up for a new week of discovery, fun and learning.

The sound of a young child breaks the quiet start to the day and soon the lobby is bustling with families and children as the hallways fill with excitement. Amid this morning routine, another family arrives. Ryan, a weekly classroom volunteer, signs in and heads down the hall. Yet 22 years ago, this volunteer’s own feet walked the halls as a student at The Center.

Ryan volunteers in Darla Wojciechowski’s 2-year-old class every Monday. This is not so different from his own Center experience as a child. He was in Darla’s class in the 1990s shortly after being diagnosed with autism. Today, he plays an active role in the classroom, including reading aloud to the children a book he personally selects each week.

The Early Years

At 18 months, Ryan spoke typical words but stopped using them a few months later. “He was quiet 22 years ago,” Darla recalled. “I came to understand that his joy was books. I also remember that transitions were difficult, so we worked on signs to help him understand changes.” Ryan regained his language during his time at The Center and continued to develop.

As for Ryan’s mother Kim, she recalls her mixed emotions as a younger parent. The family learned of Ryan’s diagnosis when she was 8 months pregnant with younger son Colin. She remembers sometimes feeling grief-stricken and in tears, only to have a Center staff member provide a useful book — or a hug.

“The Childhood League Center put us on the right path,” Kim said, referring not only to Ryan’s experience as a student, but also to the support she received from the team.

Ryan built on the progress he made at the STACK program (Structured Teaching for Autistic and Communication-Delayed Kids), which he attended through high school. He and Colin occasionally visited The Center, but the family lost touch over time.

Fate Had A Different Idea

Last fall, Ryan’s mother Kim was near the old building and, on a whim, decided to stop in. She was sad to find it closed, the building vacant. Worse yet, when she peered inside, she accidentally set off the burglar alarm!

She connected with Darla on Facebook and sent a message expressing her dismay. That’s how she learned that not only was The Center still thriving, but an Open House in the new facility was that very night. Kim, Ryan, and Ryan’s grandmother attended. Thus, the family re-connected with The Center, and the idea emerged that Ryan could volunteer his time each week.

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An Alumnus Returns

Kim spent the first 4 weeks in the classroom with Ryan, but it quickly became clear that he was on his game — and fine without mom around, thank you. When he started, Darla prepared a schedule for him with written and visual cues about the usual classroom routine. She also sends texts to give Ryan a heads-up about any changes (a sub, for example, or a new student) before he arrives each week.

“Darla gives him responsibility and he loves it,” Kim said. He texts family and friends after each stint to share what he did that day.

A Win For All

To Darla’s knowledge, Ryan is the first alumnus who has returned as a regular classroom volunteer. “He gets the opportunity to interact in different social settings, practice his skills, and be successful in new situations,” she said. For example, he always greets people by shaking their hand, which he did each morning with the kids. “We explained that for children, a pat on the shoulder might be a better way to greet them, and he adjusted right away.”

“Helping at The Center is good for Ryan, but it is great for us, too,” Darla said. She told the kids that Ryan once attended The Center like them but that is a hard concept for 2-year-olds. They just see him as a welcome play partner and helper.

The children’s families like seeing how Ryan, now a young adult with autism, interacts with their children, with Darla, and the rest of The Center staff. “This is a learning opportunity for everyone,” Darla said. “Ryan has been very accepted by the children and their families. And our families get an opportunity to interact with an adult with autism, which may be a new experience for them as well.”

“I’m so glad to see Ryan again all these years later,” Darla said. “I just love having him in my class. I think it’s great, and I hope he will be back next year.”

Mondays at The Center represent only one part of his busy week. Wednesdays and Fridays, Ryan attends Life Builders, a skill-building and community-focused program. Thursdays, he participates in Open Door Art Studio, where he draws and paints.

He is also involved with Worthington Special Olympics, playing basketball and baseball, as well as Miracle League baseball. And he has taken piano lessons since age 10 and sings in his church choir.

Kim said when Ryan was first diagnosed with autism, she did not envision how full his life would be and the contributions he would make to the community as a teenager and adult.

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“Our family’s path was unexpected,” she said, “but I would not miss the opportunities that Ryan has given us.”

“I Never Planned To Stay”

Darla Wojciechowski was a kindergarten and first-grade teacher in Nebraska when she moved to Ohio 24 years ago. In 1994, she subbed at The Center while another teacher was on maternity leave.
“When I left that first time, I cried on the way to the parking lot because I fell in love with this place,” she recalled. “When they called a few months later to fill in for someone else, I was thrilled.”

That time, she never left. She returned to school to earn her special education certification and has worked here ever since. As The Center expanded programming for children under 3, Darla became the Early Intervention Coordinator and continued to teach in the classroom.

As an early intervention specialist, Darla works with kids of all abilities and has seen many changes over the years. When reflecting on autism specifically, she notes that earlier diagnoses as well as shifting intervention to focus on a child’s social interaction, communication and functional development have been game changers.

Knowing her former students are involved in community life as teens and adults is another thrill, especially now seeing Ryan in her classroom every week.

As for Darla’s colleagues, they say she is adored for her passion, demeanor and her entertaining stories! She is also incredibly admired for her ability to form positive, deep and genuine relationships with everyone she meets, as evidenced by the number of former students, like Ryan, who return 15 or 20 years later to see her.

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