Volunteer Duo Takes on Special Needs Mission
Two Braintree mothers who have special needs children push hard to help those in similar situations through their public school advisory group.
In Braintree there are more than 1,000 children with special needs, constituting 20 percent of the school district' s population. Whether their needs are physical, mental or health related, they require extra support and understanding from teachers and administrators.
Barbara Tennison and Kristen Zechello, co-chairs of Braintree's Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC), maintain a goal to ensure just that. Both women know firsthand the challenges of raising children with special needs, which is why they dedicate so much time and energy to teaching people about the social and academic requirements of children with special challenges.
Ten years ago, when Tennison joined the Braintree SEPAC, there were eight board members and now there are four. The council is always looking for new members. About 80 families belong to the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) even though there are more than 1,100 students with IEP's (Individual Education Program)
The women have many goals for the council this year in particular, one of which is to place a liaison at each school to serve as a communication channel between the school and parents. SEPAC seeks to ensure that children are "educated in the least restrictive environment and educated along side their typical peers as often as possible."
Tennison and Zechello said they look forward to the day when all children are together in a classroom, regardless of their differences.
"The environment is disabled, not the kids," Tennison said.
It's all about "inclusion, inclusion, inclusion," Zechello said.
They said they want the children in the classroom rather than being pulled in different directions, missing important classroom information and valuable social time.
Pulling children out of fun classes like gym and art for special services can be disappointing, Zechello said, especially because the kids "need it more than others."
Zechello acknowledged that inclusion can be tricky, and admitted that for the kids, parents and teachers, "it' s always a balance."
Tennison said that parents often feel overwhelmed themselves.
"Parents don't know what to do when they learn about a diagnosis," she said. The monthly meetings held by SEPAC can provide parents with answers. "We have loads of resources."
Zechello added that she believes there is "nothing more emotional than the needs of your child" and that parents also need support, suggesting that the group's open meetings are a place to find it.
She said the meetings and workshops are a good place for parents to connect. Since other parents have faced similar challenges, the meetings are an invaluable opportunity to learn, make new friends and help the children, Zechello said.
There is "no better resource than another parent," Tennison said.
The council also offers plenty of volunteer opportunities, most of which only
require a commitment of a few hours per month, but make a tremendous difference, the women said.
Their next meeting is on Nov. 17 at 11:45am in the Special Services Department at Braintree High School. Contact Tennison or Zechello through their website at www.gpvillage.com/braintreesepac/home.
A workshop for parents on the legal rights of special needs children will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 30 from 6:30pm until 8:30pm at the Thayer Public Library.