AUGUSTA — Nearly 200 children in need of developmental support are on a waiting list to attend therapy and intervention programs at the Augusta Children’s Center, but officials hope to expedite their enrollment through a $5 million privately funded expansion that is more than doubling the size of the facility.
Among the children are those with cerebral palsy, mental health issues, chromosomal disorders, Down syndrome, a wide range of other medical conditions, and developmental delay.
Many, like Kwan Nash, who just turned 5 and has been treated at the center since he was around 2½, are diagnosed with autism.
Kwan’s wait apparently wasn’t too long, three or four months after his diagnosis, according to his parents Jon and Kosal Nash of Augusta.
But when it comes to early childhood development, Jeff Johnson, the center’s executive director, said time was fleeting. Getting help when children are still young and the neurotransmitter pathways in their brains are still being created is crucial.
He told a rally of fundraising donors for the center’s planned expansion that by the time children reach the age of 6, 95% of the neurotransmitter pathways in their brains, which are involved in ” intelligence, emotional intelligence, all that we know and experience,” have already been created.
“There’s a real urgency to do this and in some ways I’m really sorry it took until 2022 to get this done,” Johnson said. “From a child’s birth to age 6, think about what that child is learning to do. They learn to talk, to crawl. They learn to run, to climb trees, to recognize emotions, to express emotions. They learn to understand reaction, appropriate reactions to triggers in their environment.
“We cannot start these interventions at 7 a.m. We can’t start at 6 o’clock because we are already dealing with a stacked game against these children, who have these types of disorders and delays. We are going to welcome these children more and more at 2 or 3 years old at the latest. Research shows that if they have two years of the type of treatment we offer, it makes huge differences in terms of their richness in life and independence as adults.
TEACH LIFE SKILLS
Kwan was born premature and underweight. He was diagnosed with autism when he was around 2 and a half years old. Although he had feeding problems in his first year of life and his parents suspected there were underlying issues, they said they had to advocate for tests to be carried out. performed to receive formal diagnoses of autism and a rare chromosomal disorder.
He still has trouble eating, is very skinny and uses a feeding tube.
Kwan’s parents said he enjoys coming to the Children’s Center at 1 Alden Avenue and has made great progress since enrolling. He attends the autism program there on weekday mornings and the inclusive preschool program in the afternoons.
He did not speak when he started attending the children’s center but can now speak in short sentences. He learned life skills and how to interact with his peers and teachers. He eats at least some food. He also became close friends with two or three children there, something Kosal Nash said she feared he wouldn’t.
On a recent weekday, Kwan laughed and smiled widely as he ran around the center’s playground, chasing one of his teachers and a little girl on a tricycle. He tagged the two when he caught them, then ran away still laughing. The playground is fully accessible to children with disabilities.
“He loves it here,” Kosal Nash said. “He likes the staff and he talks about his friends and his teachers. And he loves the playground. He has come a long way.
Earlier today, Kwan worked in her class with teacher Diane Smith to choose the correct letter from a jar and place it in the appropriate spot on a tray. He also used an iPad-like device that showed images of objects and said what they were when he tapped them.
Jon and Kosal Nash said their son has always been lively, observant and aware of the world around him. He plays jokes on them, like moving things around a room, then laughing as they try to find them. On weekends, he helps the couple, who own rental properties and mobile homes.
“His idea of fun is being with me and working. He’s here with us,” Jon Nash said of Kwan. “I’ll say, ‘Give me the Philips screwdriver’ or a hammer, and he’ll go get it. We go to Home Depot and they love it there. He accompanies me to mow the lawns. And he loves heavy equipment.
Kwan’s teachers send home progress reports detailing what he has been doing each day, which may include what he has eaten, his classroom activities, and new skills he has been working on. Kosal Nash said she kept all updates.
“They give me hope. They show that he is progressing,” she said of the reports. “They literally show his progress every day. I don’t think (center staff members) realize how important it is to me.
The couple, who have two older children, said they felt lucky that the children’s center was in Augusta and were able to integrate Kwan into their programs – after having to wait a few months. They said the closest facility that could have offered similar services was about 45 minutes away.
Jon and Kosal Nash said they were moved by how the community helped raise $5 million to fund the center’s expansion, which is set to begin construction later this month. An existing building and garage on the site have already been cleared, and the contractor, Lajoie Bros Inc. of Augusta, who also built an earlier addition to the center, is working on the site.
Chelsea Moeller, director of donor engagement and capital projects for the private nonprofit children’s center, said the organization began fundraising in 2019. Although it reached the Initial target of $5 million, the center is looking to raise an additional $200,000 to cover over – projected construction costs. Donors can contribute by calling the center or visiting the fundraising campaign website — www.achampionineverychild.org.
At a groundbreaking ceremony last Tuesday for the expansion, Governor Janet Mills greeted several children from the center’s programs as they held up signs that read “We are champions.” Mills said she understands the importance of early childhood development, in part because she helped raise her late husband’s five daughters, and through them has five grandchildren, including one who has a intellectual disability.
The governor said early intervention is especially important for young children with disabilities.
“That’s why the Children’s Center is so important,” Mills said of the expansion site, nestled between the existing campus and Worcester Street. “Thanks to the generosity of Maine residents, the children’s center will double its capacity so that more children get the help they need.”
Major donors include the Harold Alfond Foundation, which contributed $1 million, and the Shuman family’s Augusta-based automotive company, Charlie’s Family of Dealerships, which contributed $1.2 million.
Congratulations donors Kaye and the late David Flanagan, longtime defenders for the center, for introducing them to the Children’s Center and its valuable work.
THE EXPANSION “WILL MAKE ALL SENSE”
Johnson, the center’s executive director, said the waiting list for the facility has exceeded 200 children during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. About two weeks ago, he said, 178 children were waiting to enter. Wait times vary depending on which center programs children want to attend, according to Moeller.
BL Lippert, a Cony High School teacher and football coach, said his son Lincoln, now 8, attended the children’s center after being diagnosed with autism at age 3. Lippert said those he spoke with recommended that Lincoln attend the center for its beneficial programs.
While Lippert said his family only had to wait eight days for Lincoln to come in, it felt like a long wait. He said Lincoln had shown slow but steady progress and was now a sophomore at Lincoln Elementary School in Augusta.
Fighting back tears, Lippert said the center’s expansion, which is expected to be completed in about a year, “will mean everything to those families” of children who need its services.
Moeller said the center, between its classroom programs and outpatient services, can serve about 200 children each day. With expansion, growing outpatient departments must have dedicated space and their own entrance.
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