For the first few years of his life, James Walsh didn’t speak.
“He was diagnosed autistic,” said mom Chris Walsh, who adopted James with her husband, Brian. “He had no speech at all. At 3 years old, he’d never said ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ We didn’t know what to do.”
So the Walshes enrolled their son at North Syracuse’s Main Street Early Education Program, a pre-K program that integrates children with special needs with their typical peers and provides them with intensive early intervention services like speech and physical and occupational therapy. There, James worked with a speech therapist as well as special education teachers. Before long, things were changing.
“I was walking out with him to get the mail one day when he was about 4,” Brian Walsh said. “He looked down and said, ‘mud puddle.’ Those were his first words. He’d never said anything before, and he’s out there saying ‘mud puddle’ after they worked with him at Main Street.”
Now James is a fourth-grader at Palmer Elementary School in Baldwinsville, and, thanks to Main Street, his communication skills have vastly improved.
“When he was little, every time there was a performance or something at school, James would refuse to participate,” Chris Walsh said. “But this week, a poet came to his school, and all of the kids were asked to write poems and read them to an audience. He read his over the microphone to the entire class.”
And that’s not all.
“He tells people now, ‘You know, it would be nice if you’d say ‘please’ when you ask me to do something,'” Chris Walsh said. “It’s incredible to me that this is the same kid.”
Friends of NSEEP
The Walshes were among hundreds of people who turned out for the first-ever Therapy Ball Thursday night at Barbagallo’s, a fundraiser for the early education program. The ball was put on by the Friends of North Syracuse Early Education Program, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that got its start earlier this year. The group is seeking to raise money to support the Main Street school, which serves about 300 special-needs and typical kids ages 3 to 5 in a variety of settings.
Started by school board member and former Main Street parent Jacqui Owens, the Friends group is designed to be a place people can go after their children finish at the school.
“We were on the PTO when our kids attended school there, but once they left, there really wasn’t a place for us anymore,” said Amy Polito, treasurer of the Friends board, referring to herself and the other members. “We were left with this empty feeling. We really wanted to be able to continue to work with the school, because it had done so much for us. So we got involved with this group so we could raise money and keep giving back.”
Owens said she hopes the group will eventually have enough money to fund the school in tough times.
“Our hope is that we can collect enough money so that, if ever they say, ‘We’re out of money’ or ‘This is what we need to continue to operate,’ we can hand them a check and keep them going for a couple of years,” she said. “That’s our dream.”
The Therapy Ball, organized by FNSEEP members Bethany D’Angelo and Loni ????? was the first event the Friends have held.
“This is kind of the public kickoff for the group,” said Phil Cleary, a teacher at Main Street who helped promote the fundraiser. “This will give us some seed money to get us started.”
The fundraiser featured a silent auction with items ranging from digital cameras to themed gift baskets to jewelry to an iPod.
“I do a lot of charity events, and I’ve never seen the kind of prizes we have here,” Cleary said. “It’s amazing.”
Thanks in part to such prizes, the event, which Cleary said was “almost pure profit” for the Friends group, raised $______ for the program.
Now that its name is out there and FNSEEP has demonstrated that it can raise money, the group will begin applying for grants. Hal Breon is the group’s “grants guy,” Cleary said.
“He’s written a ton of grants, and he’s looking at all kinds of possibilities for us,” Cleary said, “from grants for specific teachers and programs to general grants for the school.”
Making a difference
Kathy Esposito, principal at Main Street, said she was amazed at the turnout for the ball.
“It’s a great testimony to what we do with the children, as well as to the great support and encouragement we have from our community and our parents,” Esposito said. “People are really stepping up and supporting us, even in tough times. It really says a lot about the impact we have on our students.”
That was a common theme at the event, as parents of alumni and current students alike talked about the effect Main Street has had on their children.
“Main Street was a lifesaver for my family,” said Toni-Lyn Brauchle, a North Syracuse school board member whose son Anthony attended the program. “When we enrolled Anthony at Main Street in 1991, he had no communication at all — no speech, no sounds. At Main Street, they not only worked with him, they also taught us sign language so we could communicate with him. Eventually, the speech came. He ended up mainstreamed and by high school, he didn’t need an assistant or an IEP [individualized education plan]. I can’t say enough about what they did for him, and for us.”
The Walshes agreed.
“We owe so much to Main Street,” said Chris Walsh. “They were the only program in the area that could have prepared him for kindergarten. It was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.