An early childhood special education teacher leads a group in circle time.
Early intervention services for children with developmental disabilities such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and a variety of other genetic disorders can help them learn skills to overcome the mental and physical challenges they may face. Because children develop at a faster rate during the years from birth to age three, early intervention programs for these children can give them a much needed jump start.
Most states, including Alabama, have state-funded early intervention programs. Birmingham, however, has another resource for parents to consider when seeking help for their child. The Bell Center, founded in 1984 by Betty Bell and members of the Service Guild of Birmingham, have been working with developmentally disabled children for over 28 years. While state programs require that the child have a specific diagnosis or be 25 percent delayed in their development, The Bell Center offers early intervention services to these children, as well as those at risk for delay, often within a few days or weeks after birth.
“Because we serve children who are at risk for delay, we can serve babies who are born prematurely and children who do not have a specific diagnosis who may simply experience challenges hitting their developmental milestones,” Bell says.
Bell, formerly a pediatric nurse, makes hospital visits as requested by families to give support to parents of newborns and to let them know that services are available if needed. “We just want them to know we are here, and that we care, and that there are resources available to them,” she says.
Anyone can refer a child to The Bell Center with parental approval, including physicians and therapists. Upon referral, each child is evaluated by a trans-disciplinary team, according to Jeannie Colquett, Executive Director of The Bell Center. “After evaluation, we develop a plan designed for that specific child,” Colquett says. “The plan lists goals for development and determines which of our programs are appropriate for the child’s developmental needs.”
The Bell Center programs address a variety of needs and offer therapies for different skill sets. Colquett says the center’s programs have evolved over the years. In the “All About Me” program, each toddler is assigned a specific volunteer who provides one-on-one direction as the child works on his individual goals. The program is led by a professional team that includes an early childhood special education teacher, a speech therapist, physical therapist and an occupational therapist.
“As we had more children participating in the program who had a diagnosis on the Autism spectrum, we realized that the volunteer structure in one class did not work well for them. So we added the ‘My Friends’ program several years ago which is designed for children with sensory, social and communication challenges,” Colquett says.
The professional staff leading The Bell Center programs uses a variety of developmentally appropriate practices to target the children’s therapy goals and also collaborates with other professionals in the community who are helping families address their child’s challenges.
For toddlers who are ready for more independence, the “Explore Every Day” program gives them center-based activities that are designed to promote independence in a structured therapeutic environment. A team of therapists leads the children through preschool activities modified accordingly to provide opportunities for children to work on individual therapeutic goals, while becoming more independent in a preschool environment.
Additional infant and toddler programs include parental involvement. “It is important that we form an effective partnership with families. They spend more time with their child than anyone else,” Colquett says. “We give them information so they can become empowered to help their child and so they will be better prepared to help the child in the future.”
As children approach age three and become eligible for services through their local school systems, the center’s staff works with the parents and the schools to help with the child’s transition. “We help parents with the paperwork, and our staff members attend the first individualized education program (IEP) meeting with the parents,” Colquett says.
Because of the structure of their programs, Colquett says they require a large number of volunteers. “We are fortunate that the Service Guild of Birmingham provides volunteers, but we have grown so large that we now have a large base of community volunteers as well,” she says. “They come from all walks of life – retired businessmen, grandmothers, college students, empty nesters. We need them, and they have risen to the occasion.”
The Bell Center depends on donations to meet their $1 million yearly budget. “We aren’t part of the state program and we receive no federal funds. We are completely privately funded,” Colquett says. “We provide our services to parents at a small cost, but to date, we have never turned anyone away if they couldn’t pay. We’re here to serve the children who need us, and that is our number one priority.”
Results achieved by The Bell Center are noticed by preschool and elementary school teachers, who say they like having children from the center in their classes. Because of the structure of the center’s programs, the children are better prepared for the classroom environment.
But it’s the parents who most understand how much The Bell Center has helped their children. “It can be hard to tell what kind of specific long-term impact we have with every child, but parents tell us that their child’s first three years at our center gave them, as parents, the confidence to face the rest of the journey. They feel more prepared to face the future with their child,” she says.