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Easter Seals hopes to grow programs for veterans, kids

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Easter Seals hopes to grow programs for veterans, kids

PORTLAND — Services for military veterans and others are expanding under the Easter Seals Maine umbrella this spring.

A subsidiary of Easter Seals New Hampshire, the Maine organization, based at 125 Presumpscot St., is in the process of expanding its preschool program and developing a veterans assistance program.

Easter Seals Maine serves children and adults with aquatic and social therapies, speech and occupational therapy, a preschool and soon the veterans program.

Gail Wilkerson, a Falmouth resident and executive director of Easter Seals Maine, said the organization is excited about the expansion of one of their largest programs, All Aboard Preschool.

“Our preschool program serves about 50 to 75 kids each year, and for the most part it is children with autism,” she said. “I am really passionate about that because my own son has autism. He is 17 now and really could have benefited from taking advantage of some of the same services offered here today. When I look at the kids who come through, I look back and see my own son in the faces of these kids.”

The preschool expansion includes 2,000 square feet of new space at the existing location. It will allow additions to the program, such as before- and after-care and expanded early intervention, speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy services.

The expansion will also allow for typically developing children to come into the program, which will help model behavior patterns for children who don't always pick up on social queues.

“The idea is to help maximize learning and play,” Wilkerson said. “The expansion is very exciting because the rate of autism has increased to a rate of 1 in 50 kids and in Maine we have the second highest prevalence of autism in the nation. We believe our services are going to be needed more than ever and our expansion is happening just at the right time.”

Mallory Emmertz, whose 3-year-old son, Laneon Brainerd, has attended the school since he was 2, said that the All Aboard Preschool program has helped her son in ways that a traditional preschool wouldn't have.

Early in his life Brainerd was non-verbal and would not eat solid food, she said. But working with a speech and occupational therapist for two hours a week has helped him tremendously.

“His communication is the biggest thing they have helped with,” Emmertz said. “(Before) he had not much communication whatsoever and now he communicates in his own ways and with us and with other people.”

Emmertz said her son's day-to-day routine at the preschool is spent in a classroom with three to five students who all have one-to-one teachers working with them. She said it is a very structured program, but the support they have had from the teachers has allowed her son to make great strides.

“Easter Seals is a very supportive and devoted program,” she said. “Overall, they have made a big difference in his life and I don't know what we would do without them to be honest.”

Wilkerson said she hopes to have the preschool up and running by December 2014, although the move into the new space will begin in May.

In addition to the preschool expansion, Dennis Brown, chairman of the Easter Seals Maine board, said he hopes to create a veterans assistance program that will rival the one at the organization's parent site in New Hampshire.

“Our program will mirror the one in New Hampshire and deal with everything from pre-deployment, while soldiers are deployed, and when they come back,” he said.

While the program is not yet in place, the organization has already been able to help one Maine veteran.

According to Brown, the U.S. Marine was deployed to Afghanistan and injured his knee during a training operation. Disabled because of the injury, the Marine came back to the country and was receiving assistance at Fort Drum and through the Wounded Warrior Foundation.

After a series of occurrences lead to his benefits being shut off, he turned to Easter Seals for help.

The Marine was referred to the parent organization in New Hampshire, where he received three months of rent and Wal-Mart gift certificates so that he could get the essentials for his family.

Brown said that with guidance, the Marine was able to go through the correct channels to have his benefits reinstated.

“That is what we can do,” Brown said. “I don't expect that Easter Seals is going to provide (veteran) services, but I am hoping we can be a conduit to providing counseling and guidance on how to navigate the (Veterans Affairs) system.”

He said that funding is the major issue behind getting this program up and running.

The organization has a $25,000 grant for job placement services for veterans, but Brown said that if the only service they have in place by the end of the year is job placement, he will consider that a failure.

“The big part (that needs funding) is helping people who come back pay their rent for a few months, if their roof collapses being able to help with that," he said. "The free services are where we are going to need to get funding to help us out.”

He said a development committee is already working through how to get the funding and planning fundraisers.

A portion of Easter Seal's Toast on the Coast wine tasting and silent auction held April 11 from 6-9 p.m. at the Ocean Gateway Terminal in Portland will go to benefit the veteran's program. Tickets for the event are $50 for the grand tasting and $75 for a private tasting, and are available at the Easter Seals Maine website, www.eastersealsme.org.

Amber Cronin can be reached at acronin@theforecaster.net or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.