The Largent family’s home in Fox Point is filled with pictures of birds, drawn by 10-year-old Annabelle.
Looking at the reams of paper on which their only child drew brings a type of joy to Addye and Steve only experienced by those for whom the scene didn’t exist for most of their child’s life.
“She used to have a hard time just holding a pencil or a crayon or a marker,” Addye said. “Now she’s my bird girl.”
Annabelle’s love of art – she typically draws up to 50 pictures a day – didn’t take flight until she became involved in the STARS (Students That Are Really Special) program at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay.
She was born autistic. STARS was born five years ago to help children like Annabelle and their families, offering a support system and programming.
The Largents, who are not Jewish, learned about the STARS program about four years ago through Jewish friends and were immediately attracted through the efforts of Jody Margolis, the JCC Center of Inclusion and Special Needs director. “I was sold the minute I sat down,” Addye recalled. “Meeting with Jody, learning about her background, having her want to know all about my daughter and who she was … They were interested in her and had a sense of compassion about it. It’s been that way ever since.”
Addye said Annabele grew up behind in social interaction and use of language in a social setting. Motor delays hindered Annabelle as well. “Typical kids her age were involved in Little League, soccer, dance, gymnastics or ballet, whereas Annabelle had not had the opportunity,” Addye said. “Her disability, and the need for in-home therapy after school, restricted her from being part of those things like her circle of peers. We hoped that in time she would be given the chance.”
That came at the JCC, where Annabelle takes part in a range of activities – art, yoga, music, social skills. “There’s almost not a class she hasn’t experienced,” Margolis said.
The age range is 5 to 21 for the STARS program, which currently attracts about 60 kids. There are separate classes for adults.
When Margolis meets a new family, she emphasizes a safe learning environment and encourages parents to check out a program in person and envision their child in a class. “If they don’t come back a second time, we haven’t done our job,” said Margolis, who has a master’s degree in special education and has been in the field for 25 years.
STARS not only helps the kids, but allows the parents to leave their child for a while and have some free time – parenting special needs children can be a 24/7 endeavor.
“I’ll never forget my first time with Annabelle,” Margolis said. “I said to mom, ‘We got this. She’ll be OK. You can leave.’ Addye had told us all the things about Annabelle we needed to know.
We were in the gym and I noticed Addye was on the track above, keeping a close watch. I went up to the track and found Addye crying. I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know her that well. I gently rubbed her shoulder and said, ‘Addye, are you OK?’ She said, ‘Never in my entire life could I have imagined my daughter without me in a social program.’”
For Margolis, it was one of those moments when she thought, “It’s working.”
Margolis noted that when Annabelle first became a STAR, ‘she had to take breaks every 10 minutes (classes are 45 minutes.). “But now any given day she can get through any class,” Margolis said. “Her attention span and ability to stay on task have grown tremendously. She is extremely bright and can talk with anyone in class about anything, whether it be trains or dinosaurs. She knows a lot about a lot, which is a tribute to her parents who expose her to so much. To be 10 and so independent is amazing.”
Sarah Lasanske, Margolis’s assistant who has Annabelle in art class, said, “She used to come into class and sit by herself, but now she sits down with other kids and shares materials.”
And Annabelle, a fourth-grader at Maple Dale Elementary School, is having fun being a child.
“This has really stretched her social interaction,” her mother said, “Her overall confidence feeling part of something brings her so much joy. It’s such a beautiful thing to watch unfold.”
For Addye, finding the JCC program has meant her daughter “doesn’t have to be the square peg being pushed into a round hole. She can be herself with others while participating in something.
“I feel so incredibly fortunate that we live where we live and got connected to the ‘J’. The whole Jewish community is amazing.”
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At a glance
What: STARS Program, part of the JCC Center of Inclusion and Special Needs
Director: Jody Margolis
Goal: Offer a support system as well as ongoing programming for special needs children 5 to 21, helping them navigate academic, behavioral and social experiences
FYI: STARS is an acronym for Students That Are Really Special.
For more information: Contact Margolis at 414-967-8206.
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This story, “Special needs program offers confidence, interaction,” on page 38 of the May Chronicle, had an incorrect byline. Lee Fensin should have been listed as the correct author of this piece. The Chronicle regrets the error.