The Special needs Guide

. November 11, 2013.

Grace Leslie was nearly three years old when she spoke her first word.

It wasn’t “mama,” or even the typical toddler “no.” It was “Elmo,” and while some parents might not appreciate their child’s first word being the name of a tele- vision character, Nicole and Todd Leslie could not have been happier. Hearing the name of that little red Muppet meant their daughter had reached an important mile- stone.

Grace spoke.

For the first time since she was diagnosed with chromosome distal 18q-, a disorder stemming from the deletion of the chromosome 18’s long arm, she communicated. And while Grace continues to have challenges from the disorder af- fecting her motor skills, communication remains her biggest obstacle. Now six years old and a kindergartener at Lincoln Elementary School, there are nearly two dozen words Grace can speak clearly.

The Leslies credit intensive private speech therapy for Grace’s increased abil- ity to speak.

“It’s been such a struggle for us to help Grace find her voice,” says Nicole Leslie. “There are days she tries so hard and she gets so frustrated because she can’t speak. She’s learning sign language, but with her fine motor skills that’s a challenge, too.”

To help others enable their children to speak out, the Leslies started “Grace Speaks,” a local organization that is rais- ing money to help families pay for pri- vate speech therapy. The ultimate goal is to provide a speech therapist at Findlay Family Practice, where Todd Leslie is a doctor, at little or no cost for those who qualify.

The organization recently participated in a fundraiser featuring players from the Detroit Red Wings Alumni Association, with proceeds going to Grace Speaks,, and Gliding Stars of Findlay.

Depending on medical insurance cov- erage, not everyone needing a private speech therapist can afford one. Insurance may pay for a limited number of visits, or only after deductibles are met. Speech therapy is available through other ven- ues, including schools, but it is often not
enough for children like Grace who need intensive, one-on-one help.

Grace’s expanding vocabulary in- cludes the words “up,” “off,” “stop” and “help.” She recently learned to form the words “at” and “now.” Often it’s not the word itself but the sounds making up the word that create the barrier. She has dif- ficulty with sounds that come from the back of her throat, such as “g,” “c” and “k.”

“We have just started hearing the ‘kha’ sound–shehadtolayonherbackona big ball to learn that,” says Leslie. “The summer she turned four was when she first learned to blow air out of her mouth, like to blow bubbles or through a straw. So she really has to force herself to make ‘s’ sounds.”

She may not speak well yet, but the bubbly Grace has few problems communicating in other ways.

“She’s a very expressive girl. She has a way of making people understand her – don’t ask me how she does it,” says Leslie. “She gets her point across, just not using words.”

But communicating via speech is im- portant. And the Leslies hope their efforts will eventually lead to all area families being able to afford speech therapy for their children, if it is needed.

“Everyone has something to say,” says Nicole Leslie. “We just wanted to help other children find their voice, too.”

For more information on Grace Speaks or to get involved, visit


Special needs Helping Heroes

“Helping Heroes” is faint praise when it comes to introducing this group of people who dedicate their time to helping children with special needs. From teachers to program directors, there is no shortage of true heroes! With capes on their backs, they tell us about their most rewarding jobs, how they got started and what keeps them going.


Anne Spence

Executive director at Special Kids Therapy

Anne Spence, executive director at Special Kids Therapy, is the definition of a “helping hero.” Through the SKT organization, Anne works to offer grants and scholarships that help cover what insurance doesn’t for children with special needs — and that’s just a summary of what she does. Anne explains how gratifying it is to provide therapy and equipment for those in need. “This job is the absolute most rewarding position that I have ever held, and it’s definitely because of the appreciation we receive for what we do.” She revels in her successes such as her recent grant approval for a $6,000 upgrade for SKT’s multi-sensory playroom which constantly helps and entertains children. “They run into the play- room and I see their faces light up,” she says. Her most rewarding moments are when she receives letters from parents, explaining how she has helped change their children’s lives. Among these stories was a mother who was able to purchase an iPad for her non-verbal son with scholarship funds; allowing him to communicate through the device. “She no longer had to guess what her son was trying to convey and was finally able to ‘hear’ her son speak for the first time, and that made me cry.” Anne’s parents both worked as special educa- tion teachers when she was growing up. “I had a lot of insight about working with special needs children so I guess I had a built-in passion for doing this.”

Special Kids Therapy 1700 East Sandusky Drive, Findlay Visit or call 419-422-5607 for more information.


Amanda Sizemore

Equestrian Therapy Instructor at Challenged Champions

By combining her love of horses and her passion to help people with disabilities, Amanda Sizemore found her calling. As an equestrian therapy instructor at Challenged Champions, her mission is to support people with special needs by helping them physically, emo- tionally and mentally develop. “It sounds like general horseback riding, but for someone with a disability, it’s huge to be able to concentrate and maneuver a horse.” By making the equine facilitated activities fun and interactive, Amanda’s goal is to make visitors for- get that they’re undergoing a form of therapy. “It’s empowering for a rider to see this huge animal, and be in control of it,” she says. “They’re not in control of so many other aspects of their life. So, to be able to sit on this horse and tell it how to move gives them great confidence.” Amanda began with the organi- zation about four years ago as a volunteer and even- tually assumed her position as a full-time employee. In what Amanda calls one of her personal success stories, she remembers the progression of a non-verbal special needs child. Every time she visited the barn, Amanda would ask her what her pony’s name was. Af- ter six months of persistence, she decided to respond one day, saying her pony’s name was Buddy. “I looked at her and my jaw dropped,” she says. “I could not be- lieve it. Now she’s saying different things.” Their smiles are what keep Amanda going every day. “It’s seeing the connection and the interaction between the rider and the horse. It’s hard to explain but it’s so easy to see when you’re here,” she claims. “I feel like all the pieces have come together. I’m meant to be here.”

Challenged Champions Equestrian Center. 11913 County Road 6., Ottawa. A satellite facility is located in Findlay through Van Buren School. Visit or call 419-456-3449 for more information.


Sarah Crisp

Executive Director at Awakening Minds Art

Sarah Crisp has made a commitment to spend her life helping children with special needs, and she says there is no looking back. “I don’t see myself doing anything different. I’ve had a few ‘aha’ moments when I realized that this is definitely what I need to be doing for the rest of my life.” As the founder and director of Awakening Minds Art, Sarah works with special needs students in their studio and schools throughout Northwest Ohio to build children’s self-esteem and confidence using therapeutic art programs. “This organization started on wheels, going to people’s homes and facilities. We didn’t have a physical space until two and a half years ago.” After graduating from the University of Findlay with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Sarah thought she would become a children’s counselor. She ended up falling in love with therapeutic art and the effect it has on special needs students. Her ability to think “ten steps ahead” has made her a natural mentor when it comes to anticipating how to handle the children in different situations. She says that when it comes to approaching children with special needs, treat them no differently than other people. “Ask them about their day. Talk to them about something they can see because they often fixate on things that are around them.” She believes many students have a gift, rather than a disability, to experience love and to see the good in everyone. “They are able to look at the world in a completely different way than most of us.  And they have taught me more than I can ever teach them.”

Awakening Minds Art. 515 S. Main St., Findlay.
Visit their website at
or call  419-302-3892 to get more information on
the non-profit organization.


Claire Hibbard

Manager and Art Teacher at Awakening Minds Art

A conversation and a cup of coffee with Sarah Crisp of Awakening Minds Art (another Helping Hero) was all Claire Hibbard needed to decide she would dedicate her artistic skills to special needs children. The manager of the Findlay AMA studio does one-on-one and group classes with special needs students, allowing them to develop by creating beautiful works of art. With an emphasis on painting, Claire depends on the power of the brush strokes to help students thrive and grow. As a former art teacher in Findlay City Schools, she has the expertise needed to show students how to create intriguing pieces in the studio. She began her journey with AMA about two years ago after shadowing members of the program until she could feel the children “pulling on her heart strings,” which is when she knew she had something to contribute. “To be able to help these families and see the look on the kids’ faces when they’ve finished a picture is very fulfilling.” One of her most rewarding experiences has been working with a young autistic student who couldn’t participate or function appropriately on his first visit to the studio. Slowly but surely, Claire coaxed him into painting with her, gained his trust and helped him develop through his artwork. “Art is a way for them to express themselves.” Claire confides that her proudest moments are when she sees a student realize they’ve done something great. “It’s a big accomplishment for me to see the impact that has.”

Awakening Minds Art. 515 S. Main St., Findlay.
Visit their website at
or call 419-302-3892 to get more information on
the non-profit organization.


The Special Needs Directory

Blanchard Valley Health Systems
1900 S. Main St. 419-423-4500 Blanchard Valley Health Systems is a nonprofit, integrated regional health system that offers numerous medical services. They offer services geared towards individuals and families dealing with developmental disabilities including therapy, urgent care and educational classes.

United Way of Hancock County
245 Stanford Parkway 419-423-1432 The United Way of Hancock County’s work focuses on safety net services to meet crisis needs while creating long-term solutions in the areas of education, income and health. Their ultimate goal is to help insure good health and well-being for a more productive life.

Awakening Minds Art
515 S. Main St. 419-302-3892 Awakening Minds offers programs designed for children and adults with special needs. Individuals can pursue artistic and/ or athletic activities that are purposeful and achievable without sacrificing independence. They also work with families and educators to achieve therapy and IEP goals.

Blanchard Valley Center
1700 E. Sandusky St. 419-422-6387 Blanchard Valley Center provides support for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. They also promote independence through their extensive adult and children’s ser- vices, which include school-to-work transition services for adults and early intervention for children.