Created by the Mom of a Child with Disabilities and Long-Time GS Patient
There’s a new “hot spot” in town that brings together children of all abilities in their own special play gym. It’s the adaptable sensory gym, Sensory Towne, opened in July, which helps children with balance, social skills, body awareness and overall development of the senses.
The students and patients at Great Strides Rehab, along with all the children the therapists work with at various fragile care centers, were recently treated to a fun night there by Dr. Edenfield, Executive Director, to check it all out. More than 25 kids, from ages three to teenagers, and their parents participated in this “patient appreciation night” swinging, sliding, playing games on interactive floors and other adventures.
Such a place did not exist in Northeast Florida and beyond before Kimberly Belzer, a mom of a son with disabilities, became determined to create her decade-long dream of a place where all abilities, whether “typical” or “special needs,” could “fit-in” and play together.
Belzer, a single parent to a multi-handicapped son, now age 14, was born with the genetic disorder Hydrocephalus, is autistic, nonverbal and has survived 16 surgeries and cancer. Brandon, and kids like him, require a lot of sensory input — spinning, rocking, calming lights, vibration, squeezing, and touching — to function during the day. Since Brandon was four, his mom has searched for, and not been able to find, an inclusive play space for children of varying needs that Brandon could enjoy.
Determined to create such an inclusive play-space, Belzer has spent years researching the best sensory input activities and equipment. She also credits Dr. Edenfield’s advice and support in helping make Sensory Towne a reality.
Dr. Edenfield and his therapists have been working with Brandon since he was two months old.
This was even before Great Strides Rehab was created, when Dr. Edenfield was working as an occupational therapist at Wolfson’s Children’s Hospital. Great Strides therapists Hanna and John Kirkland have worked with Brandon for close to a decade on many everyday skills from something as simple as pointing to learning how to feed himself and walk up steps.
“Great Strides has helped so much with Brandon’s independence so that now he can dress himself, select his own games on the I-pad, open the fridge and drawers, and get in and out of the car without assistance,” said Belzer. “They are highly caring people who will do anything to help you with your child’s needs, such as when Hanna and her husband came to my home and re-engineered Brandon’s bidet so he could push the button without turning around. “
And now Sensory Towne helps children with special needs in their development while having fun with most activities at wheel-chair level. There’s a sensory house, rolling slide, foam pits, a tactile library, motion-sensored interactive game floor, a chill spa (calming room) with vibrating bubble tubes, fiber optics and ocean sounds, rock walls and swings that spin, let a child lay-down, or allow multiple children for social interaction. There’s also an adult size changing table in the bathroom for parents that have older special needs children, and a sensory store to purchase unique sensory items.
“Since opening, we have had children of all capabilities come to play and it has been a beautiful thing to see,” said Belzer. “Sensory Towne is about kids playing together and learning about one another in the same space.”
Classes are now being formed for kids dance and yoga, music and movement, and interactive story-time. Check out listed schedules by going to www.sensorytowne.com or see all the fun on Facebook. Sensory Towne is located in the Centurion Square Shopping Center on the corner of Baymeadows Road and Philllips Highway.
“If there is something you’d like for your child and we don’t have it, tell us about it and we will try to get it,” said Belzer.
Emma picked up a ruffled pink blouse from the stack of clothes waiting to be put out for sale, placing it on a hanger. Next, she grabbed a T-shirt and hung that one up with the other blouse, carefully making sure it was placed on the rack with the girls’ shirts. Dr. Edenfield praised her as they continued to sort and hang clothes together.
Once-a-week, Dr. Jon takes Emma to Spectrum Thrift Store on State Road 13, a special thrift store that encourages teens and young adults on the Autism spectrum and with other developmental disabilities to volunteer and possibly be employed at the store. Opened in January 2018, such a store has been a dream for mom Alisa Tillman who both enjoys collecting items and refurbishing used furniture and has an Autistic son that she wants to teach business skills and ensure he has a future career. She is accomplishing both by creating Spectrum Thrift Store, and, in the process, has also helped close to a hundred other children so far from ages 16 to 23.
Dr. Jon brings Emma to increase her skills and provide social interaction, another way of encouraging her growth into more independence. And just like with Dr. Jon, many other kids with development disabilities, whether from another therapy center, The ARC Jacksonville, Reach Academy or UNF’s THRIVE program, come to the store with a job coach or occupational therapist for on-the-job training to qualify for a future job. These are not counting the students with the Bright Futures Scholarship Program that volunteer with a “buddy” to put in their required community service hours.
Although wanting to provide an opportunity for her son, Lucas, “in case no one else did for him,” Tillman has also done that for others like two Reach Academy students Ethan Anderson and Ian McFather who are employed part-time at the store. “It just inspires me that I got the job,” Ethan Anderson, 16, said. Of the 30 students from ARC that have volunteered, Tillman boasts that seven have gone on to get jobs in other businesses and five are now working at Spectrum.
What’s even more inspiring is that out of the four students from UNF’s THRIVE program that has come to Spectrum, one keeps their accounting books and does their payroll during the summer, (you can see Carter Talbert presenting Tillman with her check on their Facebook page), while student Matthew Campbell set-up and maintains Spectrum’s electronics.
You can check out the bargains while helping a worthy cause any day of the week with Spectrum open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. And say hello to Dr. Jon and Emma as they make a fun task of learning some important marketing skills.
The store is open every day during the following hours:
Monday through Friday: 10 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Sunday: 11:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Just six days before Christmas, Maleah has a family to call her own. The Fennell family is adopting the little girl after she was abandoned at a hospital by her biological mother.
Christmas may be a week away, but Wednesday is the morning that several families have been waiting for all year long. That’s because Judge Gooding will be presiding over multiple adoptions at the Duval County Courthouse.
From the way little Maleah clings to Alijray Fennell’s arm, it’s hard to believe she’s only been living with him and his wife, Staci, since August.
Maleah is just 6 years old and has what is known as DiGeorge syndrome. She struggles to crawl and speak and she’s fed through a gastrostomy tube. But caring for children with special needs isn’t new to Fennells, Staci is a CNA at All Kids Care of North Jacksonville. Her husband owns Al’s Kitchen and also is a driver for children with physical and mental disabilities.
In March, they got a call that Maleah had been abandoned by her biological mother while she was in the hospital and they jumped at the opportunity to help.
“He (Aljiray) was like who do we need to call? He was like ready right then, I said I don’t know but we will make some phone calls today,” says Staci Sessions-Fennell.
From their first doctor’s appointment in July, to finally being able to bring Maleah into their home in August, they say it has been incredible.
“This child I never had personally looks at me as a mother and looks at him as Dad and it’s just amazing how it happens,” says Staci with tears in her eyes.
The Fennells wanted to make it permanent, so adoption coordinators Kinsey Whyte and Rebecca Margulies from Jewish Family and Community Services helped them along the way and were also overjoyed by Maleah’s progression.
“It is a hard job and sometimes it is really hard to see what happens,’ tells Rebecca Margulies with Jewish Family and Community Services “But then we get to do stuff like this and Staci was saying how far she (Maleah) has come and she really has: physically, developmentally and emotionally. It’s really fantastic to watch.”
Though they are already a family, they can’t wait to make it official!
“Yeah, it was meant to be!” laughs Staci.
Other families like Yaacov and Erin Petscher have been waiting for a while to officially add their adopted son Teddy into their family.
“A complete stranger sent a picture of him and asked if we knew anyone who was looking to adopt someone like him and we fell in love,” Erin Petscher said.
“It’s the best gift ever because we hoped it would be by Christmas, it looked like it would be in January so it’s a special Christmas surprise he’s a part of our family with our last name and everything,” Petscher added.
It’s a gift that Judge David Gooding has given to families for over a decade. Gooding launched the Home for the Holidays event in 2004.
“We all know that a permanent family is better than the best foster care systsem in the world. We see children transition from foster care and into their families, and I’ll hear back year after year from these families about the improvement in the child and in the family,” Judge Gooding said.
Families like Joshua and Darlene Gibson adopted their first child Skylar, and they are relieved that “Gibson” became his last name.
“It’s a great day for us, it’s been a long process, about a year and a half. We’ve gone through some ups and downs, some good and bad but it’s all good now because we’ve finally got him,” Darlene Gibson said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1-in-6 children in the U.S. have some sort of developmental disability ranging from mild speech delays to serious conditions such as cerebral palsy and autism.
In an effort to meet the demand, one local rehab center in Mandarin is now expanding its reach to help kids in need in Clay County.
It’s called Great Strides Rehab Center. Their mission is aimed at enhancing the quality of life for kids and young adults with autism and special needs.
The program was started back in 2004 and operates as a one-stop shop providing multiple therapy treatments.
Dr. Jon Edenfield is the executive director and founder.
“Some of the services we offer include occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, applied behavior analysis, music therapy and I can go on and on,” he said.
When it comes to special need kids in Clay County, he said the numbers continue to rise. More than 850 kids live in Clay County with autism and there are least 8,000 kids with some form of developmental disability.
Edenfield stresses the importance for parents to be on the lookout for warning signs and triggers associated with autism and developmental disabilities.
“They may focus on particular parts of a toy versus playing with the whole toy, they may not play back and fourth with other children, or their communication may be delayed,” Edenfield said.
Laura Henry is a parent who lives in Green Cove Springs and has been traveling back and fourth to the Mandarin location for the past seven years. The new location in Orange Park will now make getting treatment more convenient. When her daughter Chelsea was 2-years-old, she knew there was a problem based on Chelsea’s behavior.
“She was completely non-verbal, that mean she wasn’t talking, she wasn’t making no sounds no coos or nothing,” Henry said.
Chelsea is now 9 years old and continues to make significant strides an improvements.
“Now she can be able to go up to anybody and say do you want to play let’s play so that’s made the biggest impact the center has made on my child’s life,” Henry said.
She added that the facility continues to bless Chelsea and her family and she encourages other parents to seek help for their children if in need.
“Don’t give up there is a program out there for you and even if it’s not this program Dr. Edenfield will help you find a program for you,” she said.
Many insurance companies offer coverage for Great Stride’s treatment services.
In addition to Clay County and Mandarin, Great Strides has also opened a clinic within the Hope Haven Children’s Center in Arlington.
For more information, the rehab visit their website or call 904.886.3228
An Overview of the Positive Benefits of Human Animal Interaction for Children with Developmental Disabilities
Part 2 in a Series
By Christina Swanson
Summer 2018 edition briefly reviewed the history of the human-animal bond and AAT’s impact on helping children with developmental disabilities. Now we focus on Dr. Edenfield’s research with children within the autism spectrum, and how the Dr. Jon and Nantuckett team is another advantage for your child.
An additional level of therapy was added to the Great Strides Rehabilitation Center and School three years ago when owner and executive director, Dr. Jon Edenfield, introduced Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) with Nantuckett, a trained Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) dog, into his extensive program.
Already known as one of northeast Florida’s first comprehensive, one-stop, multi-resource, rehabilitation centers, Great Strides Rehabilitation is the result of more than 20 years of research and study by Edenfield as an occupational therapist (OT) being guided by “observing others being assisted and finding new ways of helping people have a better life.”
His experience with the positive benefits of Human Animal Interaction(HAI) for children with developmental disabilities began when he was earning his degrees in OT at the University of Florida (UF). For years, Edenfield volunteered with UF’s hippo therapy, that helps patients with spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy learn how to walk, and other skills, with the use of horses. Research shows a horse’s movements mimic human movements, so patients can be guided to accomplish various medical goals, like increasing their range of motion or strengthening their core, with horses.
He and his then future wife, who raised and trained horses, also helped several therapeutic riding programs that teach special needs children how to ride a horse to bolster self-esteem. Seeing the big smiles of accomplishment on the kid’s faces and knowing that therapeutic riding was producing results, the Edenfield’s hoped to one day have their own program. When they married and moved to Jacksonville in 2000, they found a home with a large lot with just that in mind. An elderly friend gifted them with his two horses and “Great Strides” was born.
So, Edenfield’s knowledge of how animals can uniquely reach and help children with disabilities began a while before he began researching how animal assisted therapy helps children with autism spectrum disorder. It ended up being his capstone project for three years while he worked toward his OT clinical doctorate, titled “Pilot Study: The physiological effects of animal assisted therapy on children with autism spectrum disorder,” at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.
“The evidence of the health benefits in the bonding between animals and people goes back hundreds of years so why not incorporate this benefit while helping challenged children?” asked Edenfield. Early studies give evidence of the positive effects of HAI, most notably the reduction of stress-related parameters such as cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure and an increase in improved behavior, social interaction and mood.
For the past several years, Edenfield has shared his knowledge and the process it takes to incorporate an AAT program working with children with autism through a presentation he developed for therapists and medical practitioners. Edenfield covers everything anyone could possibly need to know going back to the early history of HAI, the differences between AAT and AAA (animal assisted activity), other local facilities using AAT or AAA, and the process involved with getting, working with and incorporating a canine companion.
“My hope is that my doctorate research and overview presentation will add to the body of data that supports the use of animal assisted therapy for children with autism as well as make local practitioners aware of the history and process,” said Edenfield.
Although both provide opportunities for motivational, educational, and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance quality of life, AAT differs from AAA in that it has specified goals and objectives for each individual, is directed or delivered by a health service professional with specialized expertise in the area being worked, and the patient’s progress is measured.
Determining whether to use AAT for an individual will depend on what the therapist is evaluating and the best tool to use for this. “Much like a swing, therapy ball or other equipment or method, a practitioner will elect to use AAT because they have determined it will be a better way to teach a skill or accomplish a target,” said Edenfield. “The most important part to any successful treatment is the research and planning.”
Next: the final installment will explore the training that goes into forming the human/animal team, the results of Dr. Edenfield’s pilot study and how fostering shelter kittens are also providing another way to teach skills to students.
Great Strides Rehabilitation’s therapies for your child with disabilities, ages infant to 21, are now available in the Arlington area. Located inside the Hope Haven Hospital at 4600 Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville, Great Strides is distinct in that it is a multi-therapy center offering occupational, physical and speech therapy, applied behavior analysis, psychological services and autism evaluations at one location.
Our therapists work together with the family to provide comprehensive and coordinated care. Recognizing each family and patient are unique, it is our mission to enhance quality of life through the provision of exceptional therapy services. Our personalized team approach, utilizes evidenced based practice to provide the most effective course of intervention for your child.
“We’re excited to be able to now offer our services to benefit children with disabilities over a greater area, now giving more convenience to parents in the Arlington area,” said Dr. Jon Edenfield, DOT, OTR/L, founder and executive director.
To set up an appointment or get more information, call the main office, located in Mandarin at 12276 San Jose Boulevard, Suite 508, at 904-886-3228.
Great Strides also serves patients in Duval, Clay, St. Johns, Nassau and Flagler counties, including the cities of Jacksonville, Jacksonville , Neptune, Atlantic, Ponte Vedra, and Flagler beaches, Amelia Island, Mandarin, Nocatee, St. Johns, St. Augustine, Palm Coast, Orange Park, Macclenny, Middleburg, Keystone Heights, Palatka, Orlando and some cities in Georgia, including Brunswick, Mason, St. Marys and Waycross.