A collection of trees, full-scale holiday vignettes, wreaths, gingerbread creations and gift baskets are all available for silent auction. Proceeds raised will assist Sandhills Children’s Center in providing its vital community program to very special children served by the Center in a five county area in south central North Carolina. The Center has always depended on community support to provide its mission - as over 80 percent of the special needs children served come from poverty level homes.
For nearly 40 years, Sandhills Children’s Center has been providing the best start for children with and without disabilities, ages birth through five. Children who attend the Center may include children with disabilities such as Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, hearing, vision, cognitive, significant medical needs and sensory integration issue. From one child in 1970 to over 300 children today, the Children’s Center has provided educational and therapeutic services to children on a year-round basis to enable them to reach their fullest potential, preparing them for Kindergarten. One story is of a child that began in 1994:
Josh was born with Down Syndrome. He began attending Sandhills Children’s Center at the Moore County campus located in Southern Pines at 18 months of age.
“I remember the day we put Josh on the van to go to school. Our whole family just prayed that he would make it there okay and that his first day would be good,” says Jeannine Wall, Josh’s grandmother. “We knew we had to do this for Josh in order for him to be able to be ready for school.”
Josh received speech, physical and occupational therapies during his time at the Center. Before attending the Children’s Center, he was unable to walk.
“All the services that were offered to Josh provided him with a solid foundation to begin school at the kindergarten level,” Wall said. Josh is now a senior at Richmond Senior High.
“Throughout his school career, other children have been able to relate to him making his educational experience successful,” says Tammy Schrenker, Josh’s mother.
Schrenker has said that she is glad the Center is able to maintain this type of setting and help all of the children.
“The center is a great benefit in this county,” Schrenker said.
Sandhills Children’s Center adopted the early childhood development program model in 1990 and the following year entered into a contractual relationship with Richmond County Schools to provide services for their children with disabilities. Federal law requires that each Local Education Agency (Richmond County Schools) must ensure that to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are non-disabled.
“Sandhills Children’s Center provides its day school services in a child care setting. Its regulations for operation are highly governed and specialized to a much greater degree than a typical child care center”, said Melanie Gayle, M.Ed., chief executive officer of Sandhills Children’s Center.
The Children’s Center has a history of providing the highest quality of services recognized by the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) - Division of Child Development by holding a Five-Star license. Facilities receive a rating of one to five stars based on two components, staff education and program standards. A One-Star rating means that a child care program meets North Carolina’s minimum licensing standards for child care.
“Sandhills Children’s Center has always been committed to providing quality services to the children we serve,” says Gayle. “To provide the level of quality services that we do, truly takes a team effort. We are fortunate to have a staff so committed to the children and families we serve. The cost of service provision for a child with special developmental needs is staggering. For 2010-2011, the cost of care is an average of $60,000 per child per year. Sandhills Children’s Center is a 510 (c) 3 charitable organization wholly devoted to its 40 year mission of serving infants, toddlers and preschool children who have special developmental needs. No child with special needs is ever turned away because of inability to pay,” says Gayle.
The Children’s Center relies on a diverse network of funding sources, including United Way, Richmond County government, state and local contracts, Medicaid, fee and service reimbursements, and private contributions. “Donations, including those raised through special fund-raising events, are essential in the continuity of care for our young students,” says Kathy Desmond, director of development. “This source of funding represents twenty-three percent of the Center’s operating budget and Festival of Trees is one-third of that,” says Desmond. Festival of Trees has made a difference in hundreds of children with disabilities and Caleb is one of those children.
Caleb Blake was born to his parents Jennifer and Wesley Blake with no complications on Sept. 10, 2005. Around the age of 10 months, Caleb began to show some sign of delays. “After a visit to the pediatrician, it was confirmed that Caleb had Autism,” Jennifer Blake said.
The Blake Family was referred to the Children’s Developmental Services Agency (CDSA) to learn about the resources available for Caleb. For his first three years of life, Caleb was cared for at home by his parents and grandparents and received therapeutic services in the home. The decision to send Caleb to a day school program at the Center was not an easy one.
“I was hesitant about him going to Moore County before they opened the Richmond County center,” Blake said of the nearly 30 mile drive.
Initially, the only center-based option was the Moore County campus in Southern Pines. In 2008, Sandhills Children’s Center was able to open a second campus located in Richmond County in Rockingham. Caleb, who is now 5, has been at the center since 2008 and has been receiving speech and occupational therapy. According to Caleb’s teacher, Brooke Cutler, “He has been more vocal in class and having interaction with his classmates.” Blake adds, “Due to this program he has been talking so much more and he has blossomed.”
“One of the things that I love about having non-disabled and disabled children together are that the one with special needs learn from the ones that are not,” Blake said. “And it gives those without disabilities a chance to see that those with disabilities are nothing to fear.”
The Festival of Trees schedule is Wednesday and Saturday open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday and Friday open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is by donation in any dollar amount. For more information about Festival of Trees, call Kathy Desmond at 910-692-3323 or visit www.festivaloftrees.org.
Staff Writer Hollie Nivens can be reached at (910) 997-3111 ext. 15, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.