Linda Nesenson has been part of A Chance To Grow’s family – and we’ve been part of hers – since 1994. Her journey mirrors ours, as this story demonstrates.
Linda’s second son, Matthew, born in 1988, began having issues with focus and hyperactivity as a toddler. By the time he was in kindergarten, the impact was obvious: “He was so overwhelmed with everything that was going on,” remembers Linda, “he would just laugh and laugh, he didn’t know what to do. He would go full force and conk out.” He was so disruptive to the class, he spent half the day in the hallway on a chair because they didn’t know what to do with him.
By the time he was six, his pediatrician had diagnosed him with ADHD and had put him on Ritalin. “It wasn’t doing anything, so they just wanted to keep upping and upping the dosage,” recalls Linda, “so he developed a tic, eye blinking, and I said, ‘no, we’re not doing this.’ The saving point came when I saw a flyer advertising the Boost Up Program.”
This was being offered by New Visions, ACTG’s alternative school designed specifically to help children like Matt who had trouble learning. As part of his enrollment process, Matt received a number of assessments he’d never had before. “His pediatrician never asked me, ‘did he crawl on his tummy, did he creep on his hands and knees?’ I had no idea that was important. I had taken him to the eye doctor to have his vision checked and they would tell me his eyes were healthy and that he had 20/20 vision, but at New Visions, where they did the telebinocular screening, I learned that he had depth perception problems and his pinch grasp was very weak, which explained playing catch and holding a crayon to color was of no interest.”
At the time, New Visions offered the occupational and vision therapy Matt needed in addition to the Boost Up program, so Linda enrolled him there in 1994. Like Matt, his cousin Ryan was also struggling and he was also enrolled in the school. Her cousin was a paraprofessional in the 1st grade, where Matthew and Ryan started. Linda soon started volunteering in the classrooms, and was ultimately hired as an educational assistant in 1998. Her sister, Ryan’s mother Teresa, came to work in the school office shortly after. When New Visions school came under the umbrella of ACTG and moved to the current location (later in 2003), her husband Gary came to work as a janitor, and so the family affair continued.
At the time, New Visions was housed at St. Bridget’s and offered Boost Up for children in grades 1-8. Students went to Boost Up five days a week as part of their daily schedule. There, Linda knew Boost Up was where she wanted to be. The success of the program with those students led the staff to consider ways to bring the program to more children. Hence the Minnesota Learning Resource Center, and the S.M.A.R.T. Program (Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training) came into being. Designed to easily incorporate the Boost Up approach into K-3 and Pre-K classrooms, the program has trained thousands of teachers in Minnesota and across the country, providing countless children with the brain development needed to succeed in school and beyond.
Matthew stayed with the program through the fifth grade. In addition to occupational and vision therapy, Matt and Ryan received brain training via Audio-Visual Entrainment (AVE), which helps people self-regulate emotions. Both boys began to improve. “Matthew could handle the group situation, he wasn’t sitting in the hallway, he just got more engaged, more involved in what was going on, he could read, he was learning, he was calmer.” Linda recalls that Matt’s kindergarten teacher had predicted that he would never be able to read. After he had been at New Visions for a while, the paraprofessional took him back to that teacher’s room, and said “Matthew would like to
read something for you.” And he did.
Today, Matthew is grown up, steadily employed at a local store for the last seven years, and the father of four-year-old Xander. “If it wasn’t for my experience with New Visions, with A Chance to Grow, I would not have been able to recognize early that Xander had challenges. “First thing is the speech, he wasn’t saying words and he’s not playing like a neurotypical toddler.” He was diagnosed with Autism, low on the spectrum and sensory seeking. She told Xander’s mom that she should bring him to ACTG for an occupational therapy evaluation. Today, Xander is receiving speech and occupational therapy at A Chance to Grow.
While Matthew left New Visions for middle school, and has since gone on to lead a wonderful life, Linda remained at ACTG. It was her second career, after spending 25+ years in the telephone answering service, but, she says, “Boost-Up became my first love.” Over the years, her involvement has grown and changed, just as the agency has. Eventually, she also worked for the AVE program, Vision program, and as it expanded, the Clinical Services department as a clinical assistant. She has never formally retired because, as she says, this has become a family affair too. “The people here, they mesh so well together. I think it’s because the love and dedication they have in helping children be successful is a common goal. She says, because of that shared goal, “the staff is like family, too.”
When he got to high school, “I did really great freshman year in classes, and then I found sophomore year to be a step up from freshman year. I began to have trouble meeting expectations. I was really struggling with honors classes that I was selected into. I had to drop from honors geometry and biology into the regular courses. Man, did that year suck! I also found that it was becoming harder to interact with other people socially, even at the lunch table, because I was so drained. You see the ones that are achieving, and then you look at yourself and you think, I’m doing the same exact thing, or working even harder. You feel a little less than, hopeless.”
Getting tutoring at school and at home did little to help, nor did other evaluations. “I’d had eye tests and hearing tests before, but nothing had ever been caught, any physical exam came out fine. But things still weren’t working out well, and when it came time for the ACTs and SATs, we knew I needed more help. We found out about A Chance To Grow from a friend on the football team, his mother referred us to you. I was evaluated by Dr. Moroz [then ACTG’s developmental optometrist, now retired], who diagnosed me with convergence insufficiency exophoria, and she gave me eye exercises and visual therapy. Then they introduced me to Michelle [Koyama, Neuro Integrative Clinic Therapist], for therapy to help with the visual system even more.”
I could walk better, drive better, my hand/eye coordination and timing in things like playing tennis got better. I could do deadlifts smoothly with thrust when I was coming up, I could do squats and bench lifting better.“
His life got better in other ways too: “Sleeping dramatically improved, my mood improved, I was more optimistic.” Eventually, even Kevin’s fatigue began to evaporate. “I found work weeks to be really challenging, so I’d be working like 25-30 hour weeks and I’d be exhausted. Once I started visiting Michelle, it went from 30 to 100-hour weeks for 10 consecutive weeks and it was insane. I was able to become more in tune with what I was able to enjoy. I took on a lot of extracurricular activities. For example, last summer, I had five different things going on – a full time job with a residential real-estate content company, a part-time internship with an organic food company where I did digital marketing, three online classes to fulfill university requirements, various software/design classes for my own benefit, and rebranding/revamping an advertising club of which I was the president.”
Perhaps most important, Kevin feels like the work he has done with Michelle at ACTG has helped him reach his true potential. “I think the fact that I’m confident in starting a business right out of college, I think that says something. I mean, two years ago, I don’t think I’d have been at that level. My self-confidence has increased, my ability to collaborate, to be able to take a step back. Now I’m in tune. Before, I was just drained, but now, it produces energy. How crazy is that?”
When Colette Friest traveled to Minnesota from Iowa to take her seven year old daughter, Lainey, to visit a learning center in Edina, she did not want Lainey to miss out on the occupational therapy and speech services she receives weekly while at home. A friend recommended she see our specialists at A Chance To Grow in place of her own while in Minnesota. Little did she know that our occupational therapy program would provide results that would change her daughter’s life forever.
When Colette first arrived at ACTG to take Lainey to see Occupational Therapist (OT) Angela Rosales, she expected Angela would use the same traditional approach that she has seen OTs use with Lainey in the past. Instead, Angela used our own unique approach, which differs from approaches at other therapy centers because it uses brain-friendly methods such as Masgutova Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration (MNRI)* to lay the foundation for motor function and everyday life skills.
Colette says that being introduced to reflex integration therapy was one of Lainey’s most important and life-changing experiences. Before her time at ACTG, Lainey was nonverbal, had fine and gross motor issues, lacked focus and had difficulty with fine motor planning. Other challenges included reading and talking.
OTs at ACTG have taken courses in MNRI and use the method often. Julie Neumann, ACTG OT, said that focusing on the integration of Lainey’s reflex patterns allowed Angela to lay the foundation necessary for Lainey to develop higher-level motor and everyday life skills. As a result, Lainey’s life has been drastically changed.
“We have seen huge differences in our daughter in just the two months that we have been doing reflex integration, and the fact that ACTG has OTs who can do these reflexes with kids can make a big difference in children’s lives. Many parents are like us and don’t have time to go to conferences and learn things like reflex integration, so this is huge. If it wasn’t for Angela introducing me to reflex integration at ACTG, we wouldn’t know about it and we’d still be stuck,” Colette said.
When asked to reflect on her time working with the Friests, Angela said, “They are such a solid family. Colette has a fearless approach when helping her daughter succeed. Her initiative and ambition are very impressive.”
For eleven weeks, Colette and Lainey stayed at a hotel Monday through Friday, traveling back home to Iowa on most weekends. During her time at ACTG, Lainey also saw Bridget Russ for Speech Therapy and Becky Aish for Audio Visual Entrainment and EEG Biofeedback. Colette said these additional interventions further strengthened Lainey’s ability to focus, talk and overall, act more mature.
Now, over five months later, Lainey’s verbal skills continue to improve. Finally, Colette is able to read stories to her daughter from beginning to end, and Lainey actually follows along!
“We had a great experience at ACTG. I want other families to hear about it. Lainey has been in therapy since age two, and we have seen more improvements in two months than we saw in five years. If parents really want to do something that can be life-changing for their child, I can’t stress highly enough how much of a difference A Chance To Grow’s programs can make.”
Another thing Colette said she loves about ACTG is the fact that our Founder and Co- Director, Bob DeBoer, has been in her shoes.
“He had a special needs child himself and understands where we’re coming from. That makes a huge difference. Not many therapy places start with a founder who had a special needs child and knows exactly what we’re going through,” Colette said.
*The Masgutova Method (MNRI) focuses on the important role of children’s automatic motor reflexes and underlying neurosensorimotor mechanisms. Occupational Therapists trained in the Masgutova Method learn to understand the difference between automatic motor reflexes and learned motor reflexes.