New Vashon program aims to support those with special needs

Families of children with special needs will now have more help on the Island with the launch of Community Inclusion and Educational Services.

The new program — a division of the Vashon nonprofit Learn2Earn, best known for its job training and placement of disabled youth and adults on the Island — offers a range of services aimed at incorporating kids with disabilities more fully into the community and providing a broad range of educational support services, including parent education, assessment for additional services, assistance linking to those services and Island-based early literacy and movement therapies.

“We’re all very much aware of the paucity of services on the Island. ….We’re thrilled to fill part of that gap,” said Dan Kaufman, Ph.D, who heads the program.

When Learn2Earn began four years ago, Kaufman planned for it to someday serve as a clearinghouse for resources for disabled youth and youth with lesser disabilities. Now that Learn2Earn is fully in place and accredited with the county, it was the right time to expand to fulfill that vision, Kaufman said.

He and a group of professionals did just that beginning last September by working with one family: Raven Pyle-McCrackyn, her husband Mark Frey-McCrackyn and their son James McCrackyn, who is autistic. The work they did serves as a blueprint for how the group will work with other families.

“It opened all of our hearts,” said Kaufman.

Last year, the couple pulled James out of school and enrolled him in intensive therapy off-Island. While the parents felt it was the right thing to do, it cut James off from his classmates, and it cut both parents off from the community as well, leaving them the time and energy only to work and take James to his appointments.

“We were hermiting,” Pyle-McCrackyn said.

Paula Herrington, who lives on the Island and is James’ speech therapist, met with Kaufman to see how they might help the family, Pyle-McCrackyn said, and they formed the group, the core of which is now set to help other families and calls itself the Community Inclusion Committee.

It includes Kaufman, a psychologist with an extensive background working with at-risk kids and their families and who served as the director of student services for the Vashon Island School District for seven years; Lee Ockinga, the program coordinator; Mimi Walker, the former school district superintendent who now directs ARK Institute of Learning in Tacoma, and Herrington.

Those individuals, along with Sheri Hamlow and Erin Kenny, both of whom have also worked with James, spent a lot of time with the couple, exploring their interests and challenges and helping them come up with a plan designed to root them more deeply in the community.

“What an amazing thing that was,” said Pyle-McCrackyn.

Because of those meetings and the group’s help, she is now part of the Unitarian community she left six years ago, when James, then 3, was too difficult for her to take along. James, now 9, is happily part of the group of kids who meet for the Unitarians’ religious education time each Sunday and is about to begin Cub Scouts.

Frey-McCrackyn, meanwhile, is planning to begin a men’s group on the Island for fathers of children with disabilities. And Pyle-McCrackyn said the group helped her overcome one of the biggest challenges she and many other parents of children with disabilities face — reaching out and asking for help.

The couple went to the group with a whole spectrum of issues and received help for them all, she said. They asked if the neurologist they were seeing was the right one; they brought concerns about the school’s Individualized Education Plans; they reviewed nutrition and dealt with the nuts and bolts of play dates — often a rarity for kids with disabilities.

To help strengthen the connection between kids with special needs and the community, Kaufman said they will soon talk to Vashon Allied Arts and Vashon Park District staff to see what the Community Inclusion Committee can do to make it easier for those groups to include kids with special needs in their offerings. When the committee’s expertise is needed, they will give it.

If, for example, a child with special needs wants to play soccer, Kaufman said he or one of the other members of the new program will work with the coach so that he or she feels equipped to incorporate that child into the team.

When new families call for services, Kaufman or Herrington will do an initial phone intake and then part of the group or all of its members will meet with the family, Kaufman said.

The program is fee-based, but Kaufman said they will offer a sliding scale and plan to do fundraising so they are able to offer pro bono services when needed.

The need is great for these kind of services on the Island, those involved say. The school district serves 150 special needs students, but because Vashon is small, the numbers with any specific disability are also small, which contributes to the sense of alienation that many families with kids with special needs grapple with, Pyle-McCrackyn said.

The couple are the recipients of this new program’s assistance, but they are also on the giving end, as they have joined the board of Learn2Earn.

“What we’re trying to do is to let people know you do not have to do it alone anymore,” Pyle-McCrackyn said.

The Community Inclusion Committee assists families with children with a variety of special needs, including learning disabilities, health impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, visual and auditory disorders and mental retardation. For more information, e-mail Dan Kaufman at or call him at 408-7107.

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