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Visions of Community 2010
A Day of Inspiration, Learning, Networking

On March 13, 2010, almost 900 families raising children with special needs, professionals and exhibitors from throughout the Commonwealth filled the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. Their backgrounds and experiences were diverse, and included families who spoke Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and Somali, but their purpose was the same – to attend the annual Visions of Community conference hosted by the Federation for Children with Special Needs. Some families were first time attendees; others attend every year. One conference ‘regular’ remarked, “You guys have hit another homerun!” The entire Federation staff, Board of Directors, and numerous volunteers worked hard to provide a great day of learning and networking.

Opening Session
At the opening session, the Federation’s Executive Director, Rich Robison, welcomed everyone on behalf of the Federation and conference co-sponsors, which included the Early Intervention Parent Leadership Project, Massachusetts Families Organizing for Change, and the Parent/Professional Advocacy League. He extended special thanks to Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray and the Federation’s state agency partners. Additionally, Dr. Robison acknowledged the generous support of the Seaport World Trade Center; they donated the conference space and provided breakfast for the attendees.

Dr. Robison provided context for the name of the conference, citing a Webster’s dictionary definition of ‘community’ as “A group or class having common interests.” He continued, “A goal of the Visions of Community conference is to provide a place where individuals with a common interest – that of raising children and youth with special needs – can find each other and realize they are not alone, be challenged by putting to use the information and resources they discover, be enriched by the opportunities to network, and be inspired.”

The Federation was also pleased to have the participation of Kathleen Ludgate, Regional Director of the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau donated the conference bags, which sported the Census 2010 logo “Everyone Counts.” Ms. Ludgate said the purpose of the census was to create “a portrait of America” and emphasized the importance of having “every single person in the picture.” She appreciated the opportunity to address conference participants, noting they, “are leaders, know the critical needs that need to be met, and could encourage others to participate [in the census].”

Dr. Jean McGuire, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Disability and Community Services, extended greetings from Secretary Bigby at the Massachusetts Executive Offices of Health and Human Services. She thanked the Federation for the opportunity to participate, and thanked the parents for coming out on a Saturday. She acknowledged that parents inspire her office to “think about the whole person.” This has led to important achievements, such as the MassHealth Autism Waiver, and the Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative. However, she recognized there is still work to be done about the increasing number of children who are medically fragile and aging out of service systems, and the many children who leave school with mental health problems. Dr. McGuire welcomes parent input around these issues, and wants to create a youth agenda.

Commissioner Elin Howe, from the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), was happy to have the opportunity to meet with so many families. She reported, “DDS serves about 8,000 children through family support,” and while they’ve, “come along way,” they still, “have a long way to go.” Commissioner Howe looks forward to helping “get there.”

Ron Benham, a Bureau Director at the Department of Public Health saluted, “the collective strength of families.” Paul Reville, Secretary of Education, stated how important the Federation has been to him, both as a parent and as a professional. He’s working to close achievement gaps, and relies on parent collaboration to help generate ideas to make education work for all. Commissioner Chester, from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) acknowledged the challenge of parenting under any circumstances, and the important role the Federation plays in helping parents whose children have special needs. DESE is also there to support and help, and is hard at work to be sensitive to the needs of students with special needs, noting, “It’s not just a special education teacher issue; it’s an all teacher issue.”

Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray asked the state agency employees to stand up and “thanked them for the work they do each and every day,” noting that despite state budget cuts, “they still work hard on behalf of families.”

Rich Robison closed out the opening session by acknowledging the impact of state budget issues on families, and thanked the state agency representatives for “their commitment to helping families weather the storm.” He continued, “There’s no denying that families continue to need state agency support, but they also need inspiration.” And with that, Dr. Robison introduced keynote speaker Professor Beth Harry, who did, indeed, inspire us!

Keynote Presentation
Beth Harry is a Professor of Special Education at the University of Miami. In acknowledgement of the multicultural audience, Dr. Harry welcomed attendees in many languages. She went on to share her experience as the parent of a daughter with complex medical needs. Melanie was born with cerebral palsy; she passed away when she was 6 years old.

Dr. Harry’s presentation began with an inspirational photo essay about Melanie and continued with selected readings from her book, “Melanie: Bird with a Broken Wing.” In keeping with the ‘you are not alone’ theme of the conference, Dr. Harry acknowledged her fear that she may not be able to cope with challenges of raising a daughter with special needs, but that she found the strength, and grew from strength to strength with the help of doctors, therapists, and her family.

Dr. Harry’s family lived in Trinidad for a time, and she realized that children with complex health needs did not have access to the therapies, services, supports and resources they needed. To provide these services, she started the Imortelle School, named after a tropical tree that grows tall and wild. Cocoa plants do not do well in direct sun, so Trinidad farmers plant cocoa in the shade of the immortelle. Dr. Harry thought this would be an appropriate name for a school, which would provide shelter for children with special needs while they grew.

Watch Dr. Harry’s presentation, and other videos from the conference at the Federation’s YouTube site at www.youtube.com/fcsnvideos.

If you were unable to attend Visions of Community, or did attend but would like to see the presentations and handouts for many of the workshops offered that day, those materials are available on the Federation Web site at http://fcsn.org/conference2010/visions10_recap.php.

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Community Partnership Awards
As part of the Visions of Community conference events, the Federation presents Community Partnership Awards to recognize “unsung heroes” – those parents, educators, advocates, health professionals and community leaders - who have made a significant impact in the lives of children with special needs. These awards, originally conceived by Federation Board of Directors member Dr. William Henderson, are the Federation’s way of acknowledging what individuals contribute not only to families, but also to communities. Their efforts enrich the entire community and make it a more accepting place. The Federation was pleased to have Dr. Henderson and Lieutenant Governor Murray participate in this year’s awards presentation.

This year’s Community Partnership Award recipients were:

Outstanding Inclusive Recreation Award
Presented to Lauren and Andy Richardt, Acton, MA for their efforts at creating a Miracle League of Massachusetts baseball program for children, ages 5 – 18, with disabilities, and their able-bodied peers.

Outstanding Educator Award
Presented to Jane Shanahan, W. Edward Balmer Elementary School, Whitinsville, MA for providing a variety of academic enrichment activities to promote a life-long love of learning for all her students.

Outstanding Administrator Award
Maureen Conroy, Director of Disabilities and Deaf Services, Holyoke Community College, Holyoke, MA - for creating fully inclusive college experiences for students with disabilities.

Outstanding Inclusive Educator Award
Presented to Matt D’Andrea, Principal Old Hammondtown School, Mattapoisett, MA – for creating a school environment where each student, regardless of ability, can learn, grow, and feel like a member of the community.

Outstanding Parent Advocate Award
Presented to Mary Fishman, Sandwich, MA – for her work to ensure children with individual differences are included alongside their peers in school drama clubs, sports leagues, job trainings, and other community activities.

Outstanding Parent Advocate Award
Presented to Cathryn Kaner-Taytslin, Framingham, MA, for her work reenergizing the Framingham Special Education Parent Advisory Council.

Outstanding Community Outreach Award
Presented to Colleen Flanagan, Boston, MA - for her work with young people with disabilities, ages 13 to 25, to develop their abilities and expand the possibilities they see for themselves.

A complete bio of each Community Partnership Award winner is available at www.fcsn.org/conference2010/awardees.php.

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