April 4, 2009 — About 100 parents from across the district picked up some valuable information over the weekend about how to deal with their special needs children.
During a three-day retreat at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort, the parents shared their ideas and experiences in discussion groups, while different speakers gave tips on how they could stay involved in their children's lives. The event was sponsored by the V.I. Department of Education, the St. Thomas-St. John Office of Special Education and the State Office of Special Education.
Organizers said they want to make the retreat an annual event.
"We've had events like this before, but only a handful of people came out," said Carrie Johns, state director of special education. "But this time, we cast a wider net, bringing in parents of special needs children in elementary through high school. I've never seen this many parents at one of these events and I think this a great sign of things to come."
Parents learned about what rights their children are entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"The retreat is an attempt to make parents more informed about their rights, their children's rights and what kind of things are going on here in the district," said Felicita Saldana-Richards, director of the St. Thomas-St. John District Office of Special Education. "We're talking to them about what kind of resources we have available here and how those resources can keep them involved with their children, or help the students get ready for work or prepare for college."
But along with exploring the technical aspects of dealing with a special needs child, the retreat also helped put parents at ease by giving them the chance to talk to other adults whose children are facing similar challenges in the classroom or at home.
"This is the first time I've been to something like this, and it's shocking to see how many people are going through the same thing," said Lois Furet, the mother of a special needs child at Yvonne Bowsky Elementary School. "It's been really comforting for me to talk to the other parents, learn about what they're going through and see how we can work through some of the issues."
Some parents said they learned how to relate more to their child.
"I learned that no matter what kind of disability my child has, it's important for me as a parent to treat her as an individual, and not get frustrated when she's not learning at the same pace as the other students," said Laurie Brown, who has a daughter with a reading disability. "We talked in my session about giving her individualized sessions at home, not just depending on the school to do it, and sitting down to put in those extra hours on the weekends. It was great."
With all the services available to children with disabilities, parents don't have to feel so overwhelmed, said Rolinda Smith, the mother of a six-year-old at Bowsky Elementary.
"There's a lot of agencies out there that can help us out. I didn't even know about some of them," she said. "In fact, I learned there's a lot more people involved with our children every day that we know about. So it's really important for us parents to continue talking to the teachers and others who can help so it doesn't become so overwhelming."
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