GETTING TOTS ON TRACK: HOW THE REACH PROGRAM HELPS CHILDREN WHO NEED A BOOST GET STARTED
After a difficult pregnancy three years ago, Thalia Ghazey-Bates of Northampton gave birth to her twins two months early. When the babies were finally able to come home, she and her husband had to be on high alert: Sometimes they would stop breathing.
Basic care, like nursing also was a challenge. When her husband wasn’t at home, she’d hold one baby to her breast while the other sat in a car seat, which she would rock with her foot.
With a 3-year old needing attention, too, there were few breaks, and lots of questions. But Maggie Krone, a developmental specialist from REACH, a state-funded early intervention program, was there at least two hours per week to lend a hand and ensure the infants were developing on track.
“It is like having an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent who is professionally trained,” said Ghazey-Bates.
REACH, run through the western Massachusetts human service organization ServiceNet, helps parents of children — from birth to age 3 — who have developmental delays or may be susceptible to them. The services are covered by most insurance plans, including MassHealth and parents are never asked to pay out of pocket, says Amy Swisher, vice president of community relations at ServiceNet. What insurance won’t cover it, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health fills in, she says.
At first, Krone was there to hold a baby or give Thalia emotional support when her husband, Spencer Ghazey-Bates, was at work. Sometimes she would read to the oldest child.
As the babies, Lilliah and Ryland, grew, Krone would play with them, teaching them words and other social skills, a boost Ryland seemed to need more than Lilliah, says Ghazey-Bates. When it seemed that Ryland was lagging behind in gross motor skills, too, a physical therapist began visiting, to work on strengthen his core muscles to help him crawl and then walk.
At around age 1, Ryland started having episodes where he would seem to space out, and it was another REACH developmental specialist, Lisa Musante, who sensed something was wrong. She encouraged the parents to consult a neurologist, which resulted in a epilepsy diagnosis. Ryland now takes medication to control his seizures.
“Without REACH I don’t think we would have been able to manage their needs as well,” Ghazey-Bates said.
The goal of the REACH program is to catch developmental delays early. It’s a service that’s been supporting families for 40 years with a team that now numbers 70 professionals. Developmental specialists do an initial assessment to understand the child’s needs. From there, occupational, physical and speech therapies are planned and social workers are available to answer parents’ questions.
REACH is providing assistance to 580 children in Hampshire and Franklin Counties and the North Quabbin area.
When a child is born prematurely — or with a condition such as Down syndrome in which delays are expected — parents are matched at the hospital with a REACH specialist or a team to guide them through the first months or years of the child’s life.
“If a child has a delay, the sooner we can intervene, the better,” Musante said.
Sometimes the connection comes later when a parent thinks their child is struggling or a pediatrician notices that a baby is not crawling or talking like he or she should be.
Working through play
That’s how Gohan Holzhauer Page of Northampton, a quiet 2-year-old, got connected to REACH.
“His doctor thought that he was behind the speech curve,” said his father, Jason Page, “so the REACH people came and did and evaluation and we went from there.”
Page says having a developmental specialist come to the family’s home regularly has been a big help as he doesn’t have a car.
“They bring a ton of toys for him to play with,” he said.
Gohan language skills have shown signs of improvement, said his mother, Mariah Holzhauer.
“He didn’t really speak before. Now, he will ask for juice when he wants it,” she says. “He has been doing a lot better.”
Father and son were are at a REACH play group in Amherst on a recent Tuesday morning where about a dozen children, each with a parent or caregiver, were busy with a variety of activities. Some were playing on a wooden slide, others were pretend cooking in a mini kitchen. The walls were covered in finger paintings.
The two-hour play group meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The children, all of whom have been individually evaluated by REACH staff and have set goals, are working on a range of difficulties from motor and speech delays to social skills.
The session is a combination of free and structured time.
Though it looks like play, all of the activities have a purpose, Musante says. For example they may encourage the children to use language, imitate an action or even just learn to focus their attention.
During circle time, when all the kids and parents are seated on the floor, Musante hands out yellow rubber ducks: “Put the duck on your head on your head,” she sings, “put your duck on your chin on your chin…”
Gohan, sitting in his dad’s lap, follows along, as do the other children.
“This program’s been good – we are really blessed,” says Michelle Vigeant later, who is there with her 2½-year-old son Gabriel. He is jumping up and down on a foam play structure with a group of kids as she talks. She says she connected with REACH in January over her concern that Gabriel seemed uninterested in other children.
She has seen a big change in him since. He has been sleeping better at night, she says, and plays well with the other children. “He has been blossoming socially,” Vigeant said.
The Ghazey-Bates family also found much needed community support in this play group during the first years of their twins’ lives. Their older son, Robby, who was an excessively shy 2-year old, also played here during a six-month stint in the REACH program.
“It was just really reassuring to see all the different people working with their own set of circumstances,” Thalia Ghazey-Bates said. “It gave you a sense of community and often when there is a disability in the family, your community feels small.”
The next steps
Before children in the program turn 3, REACH social workers and developmental specialists work with them and their families to determine whether they will need an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), an outline of extra educational supports, when they begin school.
Lilliah Ghazey-Bates didn’t need one, but Ryland has a plan in place when he starts preschool at Bridge Street Elementary School in Northampton in the fall. It outlines safety precautions for his epilepsy — he will need someone with him when he goes up and down stairs — and speech therapy, to continue working on his pronunciation and vocabulary.
Mostly, Ryland has caught up to his sister, Ghazey-Bates says. They are rambunctious 3-year-olds who enjoy playing tag and drawing together. In addition to making gains in his speech, Ryland now can take off his shoes without help from his mother, she says, and walk all the way to the YMCA, a few minute walk from his house, without getting tired, thanks to his strengthened muscles.
REACH, Ghazey-Bates says, has had a deep impact on her family.
“It takes a village to raise a child – having a professionally trained village is really nice.”
Lisa Spear can be reached at [email protected].
BY LISA SPEAR
DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETE
MONDAY, JUNE 12, 2017