Columbus' Childhood League Center Helps Young Children Overcome Developmental Delays
The 75-year-old nonprofit’s early intervention services can be life-changing for Central Ohio preschoolers on the autism spectrum or who have missed key milestones.
When Meghan Griesemer’s infant son, Finn, started missing developmental milestones, she was at a loss. He was late to walk, and by 18 months he wasn’t babbling, let alone talking. She began to worry that he might never speak. Griesemer knew her son needed assistance, but as a single mother living below the poverty line, she had no idea how she would afford it.
“You feel like you’re the only person in the world that has ever gone through it,” Griesemer says. “And you also feel like you’re the only person in the world who cares when it’s happening.”
Fast forward seven years, and 8-year-old Finn is thriving. He loves roller coasters, kayaking and outer space. He plays with friends. His teachers enjoy having him in class, and he’s performing at or above grade level in all subjects. Griesemer says this dramatic transformation was possible thanks to the Childhood League Center, and it didn’t cost her a dime.
“We’ve had a better outcome than I could ever have imagined,” she says. “At the beginning of this, when he was 2 years old and first diagnosed, I would have never thought that we would do the things that we do now.”
The nonprofit Childhood League Center provides early intervention services and preschool classes for about 450 children each year from birth to age 5 who are experiencing developmental delays. With the support of state programs, dedicated volunteers and cutting-edge strategies, the center aims to help children like Finn reach their full potential.
Ginger Young, CEO of the Childhood League Center, says it is essential to reach these children as young as possible because most brain development takes place in the first five years of life. “If a child has a developmental delay, that is the time that they will make the most gains in either overcoming that delay or learning how to compensate for that,” she says.
And the center’s statistics back that up: Nearly two-thirds of children who receive assistance from the center no longer qualify for specialized services by the time they age out.
Young says the center’s approach encourages parents to take an active role. From birth to age 3, services are rendered primarily at home, where early intervention specialists coach parents on how to help their child catch up. Speech, occupational or physical therapists may visit the family during lunch, bathtime or bedtime to share strategies they can employ around the clock.
“[Parents] know more than they think that they know. We’re just here to kind of supplement on top of what they already know, and to support them. They’re part of the team,” says Lauren Holland. Holland is a service coordinator supervisor for Ohio’s Help Me Grow Early Intervention program, which helps parents access services for developmentally delayed and disabled children. Holland and her service coordinators are embedded in the Childhood League Center, one of six Help Me Grow sites in Franklin County, where they act as case workers.
Children who qualify receive services at no cost, though typically developing peer students in the preschool program do pay tuition. The Childhood League Center’s funding, $3.25 million for fiscal 2020, comes mostly from the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities and other government channels (41 percent), along with donations, grants and other sources. Expenses exceeded revenue last year by around $810,000, due to pandemic-related funding shortfalls.
Parents who have concerns about their child’s development should first contact Help Me Grow for an assessment. From there, service coordinators at the Childhood League Center can work alongside parents and providers to develop an Individualized Family Service Plan for each child.
Early intervention ends at age 3, when children may enter the center’s preschool. Here, developmentally delayed children join typically developing children in a learning environment meant to encourage socialization and communication.
“I think the way we approach things, children don’t necessarily focus on their differences. They focus on what they’re learning and how they’re learning it together,” says Jennifer Haddow, chief program officer for the center. Instead of pulling students out of class for targeted services, specialists visit small classes of 16 students and three teachers, enabling every child to benefit.
One intervention tactic that has earned the center widespread acclaim is the Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters Project. The PLAY Project was developed in 2001 by Dr. Richard Solomon at the University of Michigan as a parent-implemented system for children with autism to learn communication and socialization skills through play. Young says autism is the most common condition experienced by children at the center, making the PLAY Project indispensable. The Childhood League Center was the first in the nation to become PLAY Project certified.
Griesemer’s son was diagnosed with autism after he began attending the center, and she says the PLAY Project was instrumental to his success. “Oh my gosh, I had so much fun during those couple years,” she says. “I can’t even tell you how enjoyable it was. I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The prescription was ‘play with your child for two hours a day.’”
Griesemer is eager to share Finn’s success story in the hopes of helping other parents. She says her experience with the center was life-changing.
“It’s amazing what these kids can do with the proper support. And what the parents can do for their kid, once they’re taught,” she says.
Volunteers and Visionaries
The Childhood League began in 1945 as a volunteer women’s organization to help youngsters in need. Today, the league primarily raises funds for the Childhood League Center, which specializes in developmental disabilities, and its members also volunteer there. The league raises about $400,000 each year to support the center, according to its president, Heather Skurek.
Skurek says the league is made up of women from all walks of life. In recent years, more of the volunteers have been full-time working women, like Skurek herself. She says the league helps its members grow personally and professionally, as well as improving the lives of local families.
“To get that diagnosis, it’s probably really scary for the parent. But how great to have a place like the center, who’s really walking beside you every step of the way. I think that’s so reassuring,” she says.
This story is from the Spring 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.