Twenty some odd years ago, I was full of idealism and dreams as most young people are. I sailed through college, began a career in fashion, had friends, relationships, vacations and lots of fun. I met the man of my dreams, Chris DeNicola. We got married and soon had a beautiful baby boy. We named him Michael. Life was good.
I was blessed with a wonderful partner in life who I loved and love so much, but until I had that baby boy, I didn’t really understand the meaning of life or that a mother’s love is so deep and pure, it can’t really be put into words. As many of you in this room know, when you have children…they become your heart. You want the best for them, you want everything for them, and you would lay down your life for them.
Michael was and always will be our pride and joy. He is 21 years old now. He is here in this room tonight…our intelligent, funny, outgoing, handsome son. He has led us on a journey that could rival an epic adventure in many ways….the reality version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride….and Lord knows, there are still some days that we are still on that wild ride with him! Some things never change.
Michael was the cutest, most mischievous, charming baby and toddler, but between the ages of 2 and 3, we became very concerned about certain aspects of his development. The anxiety and despair that comes with a parent’s worry can be all consuming. At age 3, we found out that Michael was on the autism spectrum. My own shock, panic, lack of knowledge and primal fear threw me into immediate action. I became the whirling dervish of networking and research. I joined groups, called famous doctors, scoured libraries and any resource I could find for information.
About a month after learning that Michael needed additional help and attention, we had assembled what my husband referred to as “The Dream Team”. We had hired extremely reputable and well know professionals – each at the top of their fields in Behavioral Intervention, Speech and Occupational Therapy. I also had Michael enrolled in a special pre-school, a play group, Gymboree, a music group….I was afraid to not do enough…to miss something…. As much as I worked to find all the right treatments and pieces, I also went through the stages of grief. I loved my little boy with every ounce of my being, but I had not been expecting this detour that took us to a place I didn’t understand. It was a place that scared me because I felt lost.
As eager as we were to have these reputable people working with our son, I can also attest to the emotional, draining exhaustion that I imagine many parents in this room have also felt at some point. I’m not talking about sleep deprivation….I’m talking about that soul sucking, spirit crushing fear, that sense of helplessness and confusion…that desperate hope that you are on the right path, that you are doing the right things, and that you are doing enough.
While Michael was learning and progressing in areas, I found that I could not always understand the direction the professionals were taking. It was like one half of the puzzle was being put together, but the other half was untouched territory. As time wore on, I was in desperate search of what I thought of as social skills. Social skills intervention proved to be very difficult to find in 1995. Michael needed more than the academic side of things and certainly more than just compliance. On a November morning, with a terrible case of pink eye that I caught from Michael as well as a terrible case of the blues – I forced myself to attend a conference I had signed up for in Fairfield, New Jersey. Dr. Barry Prizant was discussing how to promote socio-communicative speech in children with autism.
As I sat there, diligently taking notes, a group of young women sitting in front of me caught my attention. They seemed to be sharing thoughts about this presentation as well as a quiet chuckle or two amongst friends. One woman raised her hand to ask a question, she introduced herself as the Social Skills Coordinator at a special education school in New Jersey. SOCIAL SKILLS!! I had to restrain myself from throwing my arms around her then and there and tackling her to the ground, lest she should get away. I strategized how I would meet her at the next break and as soon as that break came, I cornered her before she could even get to the lady’s room. That young woman was Monica Osgood and that was the day the curtain of despair and confusion began to lift and the blurry path we were following began to come into focus. It was the beginning of understanding and feeling joy and celebration again. It was the beginning of things starting to make sense. It was the beginning of new breath being breathed into our paralyzed lives.
Monica was immediately helpful and invited me to come observe one of her social groups. I did visit and was so impressed with her and what she was doing. She was working on really great things like social reciprocity amongst peers, creative thinking and problem solving skills all in a fun and motivating way. In the short time we had been thrust into this world, I had not seen work like this being done anywhere else. She told me about Dr. Stanley Greenspan and Dr. Serena Weider and the work they were doing, how their work had changed her life and the way she wanted to work with children. I invited her to our home to meet Michael. Despite being very busy attending school full time and working full time, she agreed to start working with Michael a couple of times a week. And then….Suddenly, I wasn’t being asked to keep my son on a mat with a timer – increasing the time each day to encourage his ability to sit still…. or to color code all his toys and then create a corresponding color coded picture inventory filing system that Michael would have to use in order to ask for a toy to play with. Suddenly, I wasn’t just giving my baby an M&M for answering a question correctly 8 times. Instead, we were suddenly laughing….Michael was laughing….we were playing again, being silly, having fun, getting giggles and bright eyes asking for more. We were making games out of things and out of nothing….making social stories….desensitizing difficult “behaviors” by working through them and learning to truly understand where they were coming from….and that was just the beginning. Meeting Monica put our family on a road that made sense to all of us. It was a direction we could all believe in. That was 18 years ago and we have followed Monica all these years. We met Lauren a few years after meeting Monica. When forces brought Monica and Lauren together, I imagine lightening cracking and angels singing … A team so in sync, with incredible vision, passion and purpose, was born when they came together.
We were fortunate enough to be there for Celebrate the Children’s beginnings and watched as Monica and Lauren worked tirelessly to achieve their dream of opening a school. They and their outstanding colleagues and staff have never stopped working to keep developing that dream…helping so many children and families over the years.
That day in 1995 when I first saw Monica’s Social Skills Group at the school she was working at, I recognized her gift. As I was leaving, Monica handed me a newly minted business card (her first business card) with a charming silhouetted picture of children dancing around a tree on it. Above the tree were the words “Celebrate the Children”. “I have a dream” she said. “I hope to one day start a center or a school that really does celebrate all children…and I hope to be able to use this approach that I believe in so much, to foster and nurture a child’s potential for growth.” Little did I know that my children would be fortunate enough to metaphorically dance around that tree for years to come with many of your own children.
Shortly after Monica joined our home program, she became involved in Michael’s school program and soon after, she began a Celebrate the Children school program for pre-school children right in our school district of Mt. Arlington, NJ. She met Lauren during that time and the two of them went on to take Celebrate the Children to a whole new level. They opened a small center in Netcong, New Jersey and then they decided to start a school. I remember how hard they worked.. the red tape they had to deal with – the rules, regulations, laws…the incredible stress they were under. I was really only on the outside looking in on a small amount of what they endured, but one thing was always certain, their determination never wavered. They persevered and after so much hard work, they started their school in Netcong. They started with 3 children and began to grow. They moved to Byram township to a bigger school. The school grew, the number of students grew, the number of staff grew. More and more people heard about the rare DIR based school in Northern New Jersey. Families started moving here from around the country and the world. Celebrate the Children continued to grow, to develop, to blossom and so did their students. Needing more space…they moved to a larger school in Wharton and then needed to add the Dover campus. The future home of Celebrate the Children in Denville was on the horizon. The hard work, determination, blood, sweat and tears of many incredibly dedicated people brought all of us to our new home in Denville…and what a beautiful home it is... but as we all know – it is far more than brick and mortar. CTC has never really been about a physical location, it has always been about a philosophy of reaching, teaching, love, conviction and passion. That being said, the nice digs don’t hurt – and this beautiful new campus has been hard earned and well deserved. In these 10 years, and 6 locations, it is ultimately the effort and tireless work of two women with a dream and a vision, Monica and Lauren, an incredibly dedicated board and administration, and a tireless, exceptional group of teachers, related service personnel and aides that truly makes Celebrate the Children what it is.
Today, our son, Michael, is a graduate of Celebrate the Children. He attends college, works part time, drives a car, drives us crazy, is a wicked, cool drummer and is an overall great person. His younger sister Mia has travelled this road with us as well. She is a precious, beautiful, smart girl who is everything to us. She has been attending Celebrate the Children for the last two years, but we have been working with CTC and DCCF since she was about a year old. The difference was that although we worried about Mia, we already knew the path to follow when she was diagnosed with autism. We knew which way to go. The relief in that has been immeasurable. Certainly, life has not always been perfect – it is life after all and in our case, life highlighted by exception and beauty. We are a strong family and we have had strong allies working with us and walking with us through the difficult times. I have learned so much about love and life from my two children. They taught me a patience I didn’t know I had. They taught me to look at things in new ways. They taught me about compassion and empathy far beyond what I thought I knew. Above all, they have given us so much joy and love – even when things are hard – that joy and love trumps everything else.
Monica and Lauren, our family has been very blessed and fortunate to have both of you in our lives. If not for you, the talented staff at CTC and this wonderful school as a whole, I often wonder where our life path would have taken us, but I also believe that we were somehow divinely guided to have been passengers on this incredible journey.
Finding words to give thanks to people who changed your life in unparalleled ways is a daunting task and one that I’m not sure can be effectively achieved. Today, Celebrate the Children celebrates 10 years. Our family is so grateful for everything you have done for our children and family over the years. It has been a privilege and an honor to have been part of this amazing journey with you. Congratulations Monica and Lauren and to all of CTC, employees and parents alike. Here is to the next 10 years and beyond!
Contributions to this blog are made by Celebrate the Children's highly talented, interdisciplinary team and wonderful families.