Center aids kids with special needs

April 15, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Mary Gerlich bounced Josias Lazo on a large red-and-blue rubber ball.

Then she laid the 2-year-old on top of the ball and began to slowly roll it forward. Occasionally the toddler raised his head.

"A few months ago his head fell forward or to one side when he raised it," said Gerlich, a physical therapist. "Now he's more in control of the way he holds his head. But he has to work at it."

Gerlich was working with Josias, who was born prematurely, in a day care center she opened recently that caters to children with special needs.

Treasure Island Therapeutic Daycare is the first of its kind in Harford County, and the third such center in Maryland, Gerlich said. The center provides services for children 6 weeks to 3 years old with difficulties ranging from traumatic brain injury to developmental delays. The day care offers physical and occupational therapy, and speech language services.

Day care centers for children with special needs are in demand in Maryland, said Audrey Leviton, executive director of PACT: Helping Children with Special Needs, a similar operation in Baltimore.

A 2002 report issued by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said there were 224,417 children in the state with special health care needs.

Gerlich, who holds a doctorate in physical therapy from Boston University, had similar thoughts about the growing demand for special needs services in a day care environment. After years of listening to the parents of her pediatric physical therapy patients, she decided to explore opening a center.

"Parents were telling me that they were very frustrated in trying to find appropriate day care services for their children," said Gerlich, a Forest Hill resident. "Their frustration cemented my dream to open my own therapeutic day care center."

The center's occupational therapist, Jennifer Crockett, was also cognizant of the need for such an operation. She and Gerlich began researching what it would take to open a center.

The biggest issue is the expense, which is exacerbated by the need to have physical and occupational therapists and registered nurses on staff, Leviton said. As a result, the cost of the center's services is high compared with standard day care operations.

Jessica Daugherty has noticed a difference in her 18-month-old son, Christian, who suffered a brain injury.

"Christian is holding his head up more," the 20-year-old Havre de Grace resident said. "The other day cares in the area can't or won't provide the same services."

To effectively provide services, Treasure Island needs to have a smaller student-teacher ratio than traditional day care centers, Gerlich said, with one caregiver for every three children. Children also can undergo a range of therapeutic programs at one location.

"We want to provide a program for families that can help give them a better quality of life," Gerlich said. "The problems children with special needs face are a challenge for the entire family."

The center is equipped differently, too, with parallel bars, therapy balls and pediatric walkers, as well as a room filled with sensory equipment.

Equipment aside, parents say they value the chance for their children to be with other kids with disabilities.

Patrick Geddie's 20-month-old daughter, Alyssa, was born with a disorder that paralyzed one arm. Her father saw the center as a place where his daughter could interact with children in a safe environment, with people who understood her needs.

"In the learning process, when children have special needs they are not usually exposed to children with disabilities," Geddie said, as he watched his daughter splashing in a bin filled with water. "This place gives her a chance to be in a place where she is not discriminated against."

In another room, as Christian slept in a plush frog-shaped chair with his feet propped up, Gerlich continued her session with Josias.

"The goofier you get, the better," Gerlich said. "Kids like the silly faces and bouncing on the therapy balls. Therapy through play is the most effective therapy you can have."

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