The number of children diagnosed with Autism and other special needs is on the rise, while funding to help these kids and their families is being cut more than ever.
It is a difficult combination for the Kindering Center, a nonprofit on the Eastside that provides a broad range of therapies, special education, and counseling to more than 3,000 children each year, regardless of their family's ability to pay.
One of the Kindering Center's most recent graduates is three-year-old Claire. Her mother, Cari Benn, says they knew something was different about her daughter almost as soon as she was born.
"Claire was born with really low muscle tone," explains Cari. "Her tone was so low that she had trouble moving her head back and forth. She couldn't move her arms or legs when we put any clothes on her because even the little infant clothes were just so heavy that she couldn't lift the weight of them."
Their doctor told them that Claire has Prader Willie Syndrome and warned Cari and her husband that Claire would likely be severely mentally handicapped and likely would not walk or talk until she was three or four years old.
"It was really scary," admits Cari.
The Benns turned to the Kindering Center, which has spent nearly 50 years helping children thrive despite handicaps or disabilities. Last week, the Kindering Center graduated a new class of three-year-olds. Most are leaving with far greater skills and abilities than their parents would have ever dreamed.
The graduation speaker was Luis Zarate, whose son Mancito just completed the program. He spoke with the help of an interpreter.
"When we came to Kindering, and Manicito was only three months old, we felt as if we were locked in a dark room," he recalls. "Because when our baby was born, it was a big shock to see how different he was."
Like the Zarate family, roughly one third of the families at the Kindering Center do not speak English, or have a different primary language. At any given time, the center is helping families that speak up to 48 different languages. That means the nonprofit not only provides countless services, but they are constantly bringing on board more bilingual staffers.
"Not only do we need bi-lingual staff, but we need bi-lingual staff who are capable in each of the disciplines and the sub-specialties," explains Kindering's executive director Mimi Siegel. "And so for example for Spanish, we have an entire Spanish speaking team of mental health therapists, physical therapists, special educators and resource coordinators. We have to have the entire continuum of services in two languages."
With the diagnoses of Austism and other disabilities on the rise, they also have to provide the services to more families than ever, since Kindering Center will not turn away children in need. They accomplish all this, even as funding as being cut.
The nonprofit is currently working with state legislators to try to protect their funding, but they depend heavily on school districts and individual donors for additional money. Even with a growing gap between costs and state funding, Siegel says they refuse to squander the valuable opportunity to help children when they are as young as possible.
"The research is absolutely conclusive that the first three years are the absolutely critical years when children's' brains are developing most fully, and they're the most plastic and we can have the greatest impact," she says.
Meanwhile, the Zarate family says life looks more promising since they brought Mancito to the Kindering Center.
"As parents, we feel very proud to see how our son has been progressing, little by little, day by day," says Luis. "Our son is doing something new all the time."
And Cari says she is confident her blonde and bubbly daughter, who is hitting developmental milestones at almost the same rate as any other child, now has the tools she will need to live a good life.
"I think Claire will have an independent and happy life. And that's really what we want for her," she says.
For more information about the Kindering Center, go to kindering.org.