By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — A local organization based in Kenmore is receiving praise for their work, and it’s all thanks to the feedback from those who take advantage of its services.
The nonprofit, Learning Disabilities Association of Western New York, recently received the Self Advocacy Association of New York State’s Agency of the Year award.
“We consider it to be the highest honor,” Deputy Executive Director Marc Hennig said. “We were nominated by the clients who take part in the program itself.”
The award recognizes the LDA’s self-advocacy program, Innovative Voices, which was created in 2004 to help those that struggle with learning disabilities or mental impairments achieve independence.
“They impair how someone processes information in front of them,” Executive Director Mike Helman said.
The mental impairments can affect memory and speech, but they most often hinder an individual’s ability to read.
“The most famous learning disability is dyslexia,” Helman said. “When someone with dyslexia looks at the word ‘was,’ it can appear backwards and become ‘saw,’ completely changing the meaning of the word.”
As a result, those with the disabilities can suffer greatly in academic settings and have trouble with everyday tasks.
And often, they suffer from low confidence.
“Sometimes people may suffer from low self-esteem because of their disability, or at least have some difficulty in a social situation,” Hennig said.
The award-winning Innovative Voices program helps the agency’s clients get involved in the community and the association itself — thereby providing the individuals with confidence and inclusion they need.
“The program grew into having a service recipient involved with the administration of every program in the agency,” Hennig said. “And now, two members of that group are on our board that act as a pipeline for our decision-making.”
In addition to the clients’ participation on the board, they have also taken part in the hiring process for LDA staff members for nine years.
“They are involved from the get-go,” Helman said. “They can get a take on the person and what kind of staff member they will be, and they have an equal vote. As a result, we probably have one of the lowest turnover rates in our field.”
But the self-advocacy program is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the services LDA provides for those that suffer from learning disabilities.
The nonprofit was founded 45 years ago by parents of children with the disabilities and offers a full range of programs for all ages, from toddlers to adulthood.
The association serves 1,200 individuals every year.
Adult clients can take GED courses through the agency with teachers that have a background in special education and are specially trained in teaching adults with disabilities.
“They aren’t typical adult education classes,” Helman said.
And the vocational employment program helps adults write a resume, prepare for an interview and get a job.
Client Brian Keavey, who now sits on the board, got involved with the agency when he lived in yet another program, a supportive housing community.
“When I started out living there, I was somewhat dysfunctional. I would let junk pile up and I couldn’t handle bills very well,” he said. “Someone came over and helped me with a lot of that.”
The LDA representative visited Keavey’s home a few times a week to help him review his budget, go over bills and keep the place tidy.
“They even taught me how to cook,” he said. “They helped me until I was ready to have my own place.”
Now, Keavey lives on his own.
Although the agency provides a great deal services to adults, two-thirds of the clients are children in the agency’s educational advocacy program.
“A lot of times parents find out their children are having trouble with school, and may spend hours trying to do their homework each night with no success,” Helman said. “They turn to the schools for help, but the schools tend to provide the least amount of services because of budget constraints.”
So LDA representatives step in and help the parents communicate with the school district to get the best services possible.
Other programs for children include an after-school and Saturday session that provides a place for the kids to make friends and receive tutoring to combat the disability.
The organization is one of eight LDAs in the state and services the eight counties of Western New York, with offices in Kenmore, Dunkirk and Jamestown.Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150.