eLumanated Volume 1, Part 3: Finding My Place To Be
eLumanated is eLuma’s newest series, which showcases parents and professionals in their efforts to elevate the lives of students with disabilities. As a progressive therapy provider, we recognize that no two students are the same and that there are many different approaches to the same diagnosis. Join us each week to check out different perspectives and experiences related to raising exceptional children, organizations that facilitate their success, and insights into effective interventions.
This week, Christa Milner, founder of My Place To Be, returns with the part III of her three-part series, in which she’ll share insights on raising a twice-exceptional child, challenges and triumphs along the way, and creation of her non-profit organization that provides a safe place for socialization and support for children with autism and their families. If you missed it, please check our Christa’s last post eLumanated Volume II: Helping Our Colt (a Twice-Exceptional Child). We also invite you to check out My Place to Be to learn more about this unique organization.
Finding My Place To Be
By Christa Milner
The biggest adventure of my life has been as Colt’s mom. I’ve enjoyed sharing our journey raising our twice-exceptional son as well as insights into interventions that helped Colt and our family. As a result of our challenges and a passion for helping other families in our community who face the same struggles, our family founded a nonprofit called My Place To Be. In my last article, I’m excited to reflect on the creation of our organization and our vision for the future.
When Colt was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I found a support group in our community for families struggling with all disabilities. The group met monthly, and in the early years, I got a lot of amazing information. While sitting in these groups, I realized I was not alone. I could create something positive and purposeful from Colt’s diagnosis of Autism. I ended up taking over that support group, and in the process, founded My Place To Be.
Before Colt was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, he was turned away from three babysitters and two daycare centers. As Colt grew older, we tirelessly searched for ways to help our son and found success in non-traditional approaches. But as a mom of a neurotypical child whom everyone adored, I still struggled to find a place where Colt could just be himself. A place with no judgements where he could express himself and learn in a positive way. A place with people who considered the whole picture and recognized the underlying cause of Colt’s “acting out.”
I truly believe all behavior is a form of communication. For children who struggle with verbal communication, “behaviors” are often their only outlet to let us know that something isn’t right. Early on, Colt was a reactive child. I learned quickly that if he was “acting out,” something had happened that he needed to communicate. Whether he misinterpreted a social situation or someone had wronged him, he was trying to express that frustration in the only way he knew how. There was always a reason for his behavior–always truth behind his action. Through my experiences as a mother to a child who was misinterpreted and unfairly judged by others who just didn’t understand, I became convinced that all children needed someone to hear their truths.
I searched for programs that would help Colt with social emotional learning so that he could learn how to cope with his strong emotions. There’s a lot of good and bad information out there, and I finally came across a program we still use 11 years later at My Place To Be called Camp Make Believe, developed by Pam Goldberg from Las Vegas, Nevada. The program starts with a story about a girl, Mad Melly, and her pet parrot. We started reading the story with Colt and realized that this program would be great for all children, especially those struggling to effectively manage their emotions.
So, in March 2006, I began offering Saturday morning classes at my family’s farm, and My Place to Be was born! Every Saturday for 12 weeks, I tackled a small piece of Mad Melly’s story, directed corresponding activities, and facilitated a social time for a small group of children to play and work on playing with their peers. In my first group, there were six children with developmental delays, and my niece and nephew served as typical peers. I quickly grew my Saturday morning program to four classes serving preschoolers to teens.
Today, My Place to Be provides numerous classes throughout the week. Over the last 11 years, the My Place To Be focus has been on social emotional learning (SEL). In today’s world where over-scheduling, violence, and bullying is so prevalent, adequate social emotional skills are so important for all children. We all need to be able to handle our emotions in a positive way. Studies have shown that SEL may reduce violence and help children with their academic growth as demonstrated by improved test scores. When children learn to stand up to a bully or how to breathe when their anxiety takes over, we have changed the world.
In this process of creating and growing My Place To Be, I have become a parent advocate and attend IEP meetings with parents fighting for their children’s rights to be educated according to the way they learn. My Place To Be is a place of support for anyone who needs our help. I am fortunate to say that I have the opportunity to be involved in the lives of the families who come for refuge to My Place To Be. We are not just a program where kids come for services–we are a family. We are a place where everyone, even parents, are allowed to be and find a little peace.
In the last two months, My Place To Be has evolved into an education center with the creation of our new program My Place To Learn, which is a Jon Peterson and Autism Scholarship provider through the Ohio Department of Education. For a very long time, I have dreamed of giving children a place where they can learn in their own ways, and I’m so excited that it’s now a reality. I realized several years ago there are many programs out there for children with significant challenges, but for high-functioning twice-exceptional children, truly effective programs are hard to find. These children are too high-functioning for many of the traditional autism programs but struggle in public schools, often getting lost in the system. Many times, these students are classified as “behavior challenges,” with the focus more on the disability than the ability of a child.
At My Place To Learn, our staff focuses on the whole child. We teach social emotional learning, and we engage in morning meditation every day after the Pledge of Allegiance. We use only multisensory-based learning curriculums, including the Orton-Gillingham Approach to reading. We are allowing our students to find their gifts by working on individual project-based learning, which allows them to dive into their interests and study as much as they want about the subject. When we see a child really excited over a particular subject, we can then develop their IEP goals around those interests and develop a life plan to help them obtain what may otherwise be unreachable goals. One of our female students is an amazing animator, but she struggles significantly with language, social skills, and emotional management. Working with My Place To Learn, her mom has been able to embrace those skills and develop an IEP to help her reach her goals of being a professional animator someday.
Of course, this approach may take more time time, but it is worth the effort to allow our kids to have their own purposes and to be happy adults with meaningful work, not just remedial jobs because they have disabilities. The possibilities are endless for our students and any child with a disability. We just have to open our eyes to see their abilities first, then help them fill in the gaps along the way.
Over the years, the most amazing aspect of My Place To Be is that our families have found a place where their child can just be who they are. There are no judgements about meltdowns or behaviors because we have all been there as parents. The friendships and relationships that have developed among families and children alike through our program bring me so much pride. Children who have never been invited to a birthday party now have multiple invitations. Families get together and even go on vacations together because they found a place where they are accepted, and their children are allowed to be who they are.
My Place To Be has become not just my life purpose but our entire family’s purpose. My husband, Rod, has been a huge support, allowing me to use our own funds in the early days to develop something bigger than we could ever imagine. My oldest son, Dan, has served on our advisory board since the beginning, heading up our major fundraising events to bring in funds that support our program every year. And of course, Colt is the reason we began the program, and he continues to grow and develop.
We also are blessed with an amazing board of directors. We have been so fortunate to have the right people as part of the My Place To Be team from the beginning, and I have learned something from each and every one of them. As an organization and family, we have had our struggles, but it often seems there is divine intervention at every step of our journey. There have been times we could have easily just stopped and focused just on Colt’s needs, but something more has kept us going to do more for our community and to be a branch for those in need.
Christa Milner is the mother to an amazing teen with autism as well as the founder of My Place to Be, a non-profit organization that provides social-emotional learning programs and support for children with autism and their families.
We are so happy to have Christa as a guest and wish her great success in years to come growing My Place To Be.