NDAD has awarded its fifth Faye Gibbens Memorial Grant to Altru Health Foundation, based in Grand Forks, to help expand a social and interpersonal skills program that helps children affected by learning and attention issues.
The Altru Health System program will use the $5,000 grant award to help teach pre-teens and teens ages 11 to 18. It currently serves children in two age groups: 3 to 5 and 6 to 10.
NDAD awards the grant twice annually to an agency or organization to be used for a health, welfare, social service or education purpose to help at-risk populations. The grant is named for NDAD's late co-founder and longtime program services leader, who died in early 2014.
Children participating in Altru’s social skills program usually have medical conditions that create financial hardships for their families, according to the grant application. The program provides financial assistance for families that meet its financial need requirement, based on income and expenses.
“With the group, we are looking at helping them practice their social skills in a variety of situations: interacting with peers, with group leaders, even going to a restaurant – skills that don’t always come naturally to all children, whether they have ADHD or whatever it may be,” including but not limited to mobility issues, autism and other non-verbal learning disabilities, said Jessica Strand, Altru physical medicine and outpatient therapy manager. “Those are the skills they’re going to be able to carry forward as they enter adulthood.”
“We want to be able to foster that growth, and we try to have fun when we do that,” she said. “If they don’t have those skills, that can lead to problems in school and making friends, and even getting beyond that, secondary education, having a job. . . . We’re really, really excited for this grant.”
The idea for adding an older social skills group came from Jane Loscheider, an Altru occupational therapist. She has seen some of the challenges that confronting her young teen daughter, who has a rare congential growth disorder, Russell Silver Syndrome, and also has experienced slower cognitive maturity.
“Her experiences are very limited, because she can’t participate in the same socially acceptable ways that other teens her age are doing,” Loscheider said. “Her friends are into social media, doing pictures and all of that. She’s just not there socially with them, so her friendship base is limited.”
If pre-teens and teens also have a physical limitation, they’re often not participating in sports and some other extra-curricular activities that can help foster friendships, Loscheider said.
“I identified two other girls who were the same age and have had the same struggles, and I thought, why not put them together in a social environment and see if we can build on relationships with other peers, like how to interact with them? Because they don’t have those experiences, they can’t do it.”
The young teen girls’ parents shared some of the same concerns about their daughters’ limited friendships, Loscheider said.
"And I thought, you know what? This is a need. I’m seeing this as a need,” Loscheider said.
A summer pilot social skills session for the young teens went well, said Strand, who agreed that “there’s a high need” among older children for such a program.
“We have a lot of services at Altru and throughout the community for our younger pediatric population, but when kids reach a certain age in that pre-teen and teenager group, there really are not nearly as many services available, so we are trying to help close that gap,” Strand said.
Altru’s occupational therapy team will oversee the program, which will pull in physical or speech therapists “depending on the needs of the group,” Strand said. Referrals are expected to come primarily from area pediatricians.
Loscheider recalled calls from an area psychologist who was looking for a similar type of program for a young client who was struggling to pick up social cues and understand boundaries and limitations.
“We didn’t have it at the time, and now we will – thanks to (NDAD),” Loscheider said. “Thank you very much.”
Jon Green, executive director of Altru Health Foundation, said the organization is “tremendously thankful “ for the NDAD grant. “It will provide an extremely important form of support for the therapists,” he said.
“NDAD is pleased to support the social skills training program for children impacted by learning and attention issues,” said Leslie Stastny, NDAD’s chief program officer. “We believe that this program will make a significant impact on the individuals it will serve.”
Earlier this year, NDAD awarded the fourth $5,000 Faye Gibbens Memorial Grant to Child Care Aware of North Dakota (CCAoND), a training and information hub for child care providers and offers parents customized referrals to licensed child care options. CCAoND is provided by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota through a contract with the state. The grant helped CCAoND to purchase specialized equipment, materials and resources for providers who care for children with special needs or challenging behaviors while participating in the program’s inclusion support service, which offers “best practice” coaching and consultation.