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Excentia’s Response to the DSP Crisis

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What is a DSP?   People with developmental needs and autism have every right to live a happy, productive life and be involved in the community. Sometimes this isn’t possible without the help of a Direct Support Professional. DSPs help individuals on a daily basis with anything they need, from tying their shoes, to making dinner, to helping them catch the bus. DSPs spend anywhere from a few hours a week to 24/7 with the individuals they support.   DSPs are one of the most essential roles here at Excentia, making up more than 75% of our staff. They are the embodiment of our mission to enable people with developmental needs to live as independently and fully as they desire within the community.   What is the DSP Crisis?   The role of a DSP is one of the most important, but not always the easiest. There are 55,000 DSPs in Pennsylvania, which clearly illustrates the high demand for their services. However, in 2018 alone, 13,000 of these positions were left unfilled, and 20,000 turned over.   This high turnover rate and so many unfilled positions can lead to individuals not getting the level of care they deserve. This deficit means the DSPs who are employed must work longer hours, provide more care, and get burned out more easily. When new employees are hired, they may get thrown into the field too quickly without proper training, work long hours, or be paired with an individual whose needs they are unable to meet. All these factors can contribute to improper care of individuals, no matter the intention.   Excentia’s Role   Excentia is committed to doing our part to fix the national DSP crisis. As DSPs have one of the most important roles at Excentia, we do our best to ensure they are satisfied with their job. We take the necessary steps to keep our employees happy and healthy, so they can provide the best support and care possible to the individuals we serve. According to a recent employee satisfaction survey, 90% of Excentia employees feel that their work is valued, and would like to work at Excentia for a long time.   Part of the reason our satisfaction rate is so high is because we are constantly working hard to ensure all DSP positions are filled with knowledgeable and compassionate people. In addition to phone screens and background checks, potential DSPs are taken on site visits to where they will be working to ensure they are prepared for their new role.   Employees receive comprehensive paid training on the best care practices, the history of how individuals with developmental needs and autism have been treated in the past, and the values of Excentia so they are able to provide care to the best of their abilities. DSPs are also offered benefits, higher weekend pay, a retention bonus, and employee appreciation events. Excentia offers competitive pay based on position, schedule, and experience because we believe that DSPs deserve competitive compensation for the important work they do. This also ensures that the best possible supports are provided to the people we serve.   What You Can Do   The most important thing you can do is educate yourself and others, and advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves. Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability (PAR) offers an advocacy toolkit including many helpful resources to help with the DSP crisis. They offer a letter you can ask your legislator to sign requesting their support for more funds to be allocated for Direct Support Professionals, and many other resources.   The DSP Crisis is one that Excentia is working hard to eliminate, and you can too. People with developmental disabilities have every right to all the supports they need, and we will continue to work towards achieving this goal. If you’re interested in becoming a DSP, apply at ourexcentia.org. We offer a variety of full-time and part-time positions available that allow you to make a positive impact each and every day.

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Stephanie's Employment Story

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Employment levels for people with disabilities are low, even in this strong economy. As of 2017, less than 19% of people with disabilities were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was nearly 66%. Customized and Supported Employment is a tool we can use to begin to balance out those statistics.   At Excentia, we believe all people should strive for competitive and integrated employment. We utilize a Customized and Supported Employment approach to assist people in achieving their employment goals. We begin by discovering a person’s talents and interests that will direct them towards an enjoyable career path. We then support the person to acquire, obtain, and maintain their employment. We utilize many other supports and services to assist people in being competitively employed. For Stephanie, we started supporting her through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.   Stephanie is part of our Residential Program and has been very eager to get back to work. She has worked with E.A.R.S. and Goodwill in the past, but neither was quite the right fit for her. She applied for services with OVR and requested Excentia as her service provider. I met Stephanie for the first time back in October of 2018.   Stephanie knew she wanted to find meaningful employment, but she needed some help taking the first steps. Discovery is the first aspect of Customized Employment. This includes exploring and performing tasks from different areas of the “Strengths and Interests” that were identified during the completion of the Discovery Profile. Stephanie and her Job Coach did several job trials at locations such as Dunkin Donuts, New Holland Re-Uzit, and Thomas Trading. We also went to several places of business to enquire about what a job there would entail, such as Weis Markets, Dollar Tree and Spooky Nook Sports.   When we met Barbara Shellenberger from “The Nook”, she appreciated Stephanie’s enthusiasm and was interested in helping Stephanie obtain employment. Barbara sent Stephanie’s resume to her co-worker, Dustin Sload, that manages the Facilities Enhancement Department at the Lanco Fieldhouse, which is a subsidiary of Spooky Nook. He contacted us and we toured the facility. Stephanie stated that she would like to work there because she could complete her job duties in the morning before the facility was open to the public. At that time there would be no distractions, which had been a barrier to maintaining employment for Stephanie in the past. Even better, she could essentially complete her tasks during any 2-3 hour period, between 8am and 2pm. That suited her because she would have a key card along with her ID and all the responsibility that goes with it. Dustin was pleased with Stephanie’s enthusiasm and interest. He informed Stephanie that he would put her name forward with the HR Department when he returned to the main facility. She got an email later that day informing her of the job offer!   Stephanie is now an official employee of Spooky Nook which, by the way, includes a free pass to use all the facilities, and a 35% discount at the hotel and restaurant. She will still need the support of a job coach to navigate some of the aspects of her new job, but with Stephanie’s strong work ethic and team of supporters, she’ll be a great success story for Integrated & Competitive/Supported Employment before you know it. In my opinion, she already is.

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The Most Magical Trip on Earth

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"The bumps are tickling my tummy!" Ryan yelled as we jetted down the runway. Years of working and saving up had finally paid off. "It's party time!" Ryan shouted. Everyone on the plane was in agreement - it was party time! Ryan and I were off to Disney World.   Those who don't know Ryan are missing out. Ryan is a 29 year old man whose passion for life is second only to his passion for having a good time. He is a young man who people look up to, who does not allow others to determine his ability. This became even more evident on our trip to the most magical place on Earth.   In this field, we are constantly reminded that we need to empower others. I forgot what this looked like until Ryan and I were at the Philadelphia International Airport. Although Ryan was in full party mode, I witnessed a look of defeat on his face when he was told to sit in a wheelchair, as him walking through the airport was a liability (for the airport). Those who know Ryan know he was stuck in a wheelchair up until the age of 20. He set a goal of walking across the stage on his high school graduation day to receive his diploma and he achieved this goal. This made him determined to never limit himself to a wheelchair again. Yet, there he was.   However, he didn't let that one small hiccup slow him down. Once we were at the gate and the wheelchair was gone, Ryan and I were back to full celebration mode as he chatted with every person he could find. The flight, the drive, the hotel, and a short sleep were taken care of and we found ourselves waking up the morning of the big day. Time for Disney!   Ryan was determined to see it all, and he certainly did! We went to Magic Kingdom the first day and he refused to stop. He did not let the distance between attractions slow him down and before we knew it lunch time had come. Around noon, I asked Ryan, "are you ready for lunch?" "Nope, not yet!" Ryan responded. Alright then, let's keep going! At 1:00 it was the same answer, then 2:00, then 3:00 and he still didn't want to stop. After all, according to Ryan, "we have to watch the parade!" Finally, 4:30 rolled around and I had to put my foot down. "Ryan, I'm stopping and I am eating." Ryan said "me too, Jake. I am starving!" I then asked him why he didn't want to eat before. His response was "still too much to do!" Ryan was overwhelmed and he loved it. I loved it. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing someone's dream come true and not only did I get to watch him live it, I was absorbed in the enchantment of it.   I was unable to take in the gravity of the moment until it was the end of the night and we waited for the fireworks. Ryan explained to me that he had never seen a fireworks show and asked if it would be neat. Never seeing one at Disney before, all I could say was, "Yeah, I think it will be a pretty good show." I did not realize how unprepared I was for the moment.   Ryan, never one to miss a conversation with anyone around his age (especially ladies!), began to steal the show. A group of people gathered around where we were standing to get ready for the fireworks. Ryan began to chat with all those near him and everyone fell in love with his enthusiasm, openness, and smile. Everyone wanted pictures with him and they wanted to know more about him.   Just then, the lights went down and it was time for the fireworks. Ryan was excited and he expressed it. As the show began, he let out a yell and it changed the perspective from which I was watching the show. I was no longer seeing fireworks like I had seen them before; I was seeing them, and this whole trip, through Ryan's eyes. He made the sacrifice of working and saving, dreaming and doing. He did it! I stood there watching him and as the tears flowed down my face, I realized how lucky I am to know Ryan. He doesn't just take in the big things, he takes in everything. As I stood there watching him, I realized the moment didn't just take me in, it had also taken in the people around us he had befriended moments before.   They were finding themselves emotional over the pure joy one person was experiencing. As I wiped tears from my eyes, I noticed others doing the same and pointing to Ryan - not because he was different, but because he was there and experiencing the moment with them.   Although the trip did not stop there, it did become a life changing moment for the two of us (especially me). We went to Hollywood Studios on the second day and Ryan was able to meet some of his favorite characters like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, The Incredibles, and the famous mouse duo. Ryan thanked me at the end of the trip for going with him and the only thing I could process was how indebted I was to him. He helped me see that nothing should stop us from reaching for our dreams and working hard to make them happen. Ryan is one of the most interesting, kind, and grateful people I have ever met. Anyone who has interacted with him truly knows what kind of people Excentia gets the pleasure of supporting. Being out of direct care for a few years made me realize that without daily interactions with the people we support, we truly cannot know what is needed in their lives. Thanks to Ryan, I have remembered.

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TimberNook FAQs

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What is TimberNook? TimberNook is a nature-based developmental outdoor program that integrates sensory experiences, imagination and nature for all kids. Children play together and independently using stories, games, and new experiences to have fun, learn, develop, and explore. The TimberNook curriculum weaves together the therapeutic benefits of nature with activities that inspire children to think creatively, to accept challenges, and even to learn from failure.   What is TimberNook of Lancaster County? TimberNook of Lancaster County is offered as a service of Excentia, a nonprofit organization in Lancaster County that provides supports for people with developmental needs and autism throughout the lifespan. At TimberNook of Lancaster County, children have the chance to play together and independently, using stories, games, and experiences to have fun, learn, develop, and explore. Excentia believes in the TimberNook philosophy that the more children engage in self-directed play and take reasonable risks outdoors, the better equipped they are to be successful in home and school environments.   When will TimberNook programming happen? Storybook Session 1 Dates: May 20 – 24 Time: 9:00am – 12:00pm Capacity: 20 Ages: 4-7 years Description: One of our most popular programs where young children “live and breathe” stories out in the wild. We’ll be doing everything from experimenting with colors in a giant foam experience for the story "Little Blue and Little Yellow" to creating life-sized spider webs over the mud after hearing the story "The Very Busy Spider." With the turn of every day comes a new story for the children to experience and lots of FUN!   Tiny Ones Session Dates: May 28 & 30 and June 4 & 6 Time: 9:00am - 11:00am Capacity: 16 Ages: 2-4 years with an adult Description: This program was designed for the smallest of our TimberNook adventurers. You and your child will venture into the woods for creative play opportunities that engage the mind and challenge the senses, such as hosting a tea party in the garden to doing “construction work” in mud puddles to experimenting with color in giant foam experiences. You’ll also walk away each week with an idea on how to inspire creative play at home.   Going Wild Session Dates: July 8 -12 Time: 9:00am - 3:00pm Capacity: 24 Ages: 7-12 years Description: An all-time classic TimberNook camp for older children who enjoy taking play to a whole new level. Children will create an elaborate fort system equipped with trap doors, barricades, tunnel systems, and more. It will be a week full of adventure, games, and surprises! This program will stretch the minds of your young ones and leave them asking for more.   Extreme Art Session Dates: July 15 – 19 Time: 9:00am - 3:00pm Capacity: 24 Ages: 7-12 years Description: This week is full of active creativity and lots of color! Campers will have the opportunity to create their own fruit and veggie dye to dye fabrics, build some fabulous forts to duck and cover from paint bombs, rocket paint into the sky, play Messy Monkey In the Middle and more! Those who enjoy art in a big way will have a large canvas to work with.   Storybook Session 2 Dates: August 5 – 9 Time: 9:00am – 12:00pm Capacity: 20 Ages: 4-7 years Description: One of our most popular programs where young children “live and breathe” stories out in the wild. We’ll be doing everything from experimenting with colors in a giant foam experience for the story "Little Blue and Little Yellow" to creating life-sized spider webs over the mud after hearing the story "The Very Busy Spider." With the turn of every day comes a new story for the children to experience and lots of FUN!   How much does it cost? Storybook Sessions: $110 Tiny Ones: $60 Extreme Art: $235 Wild Ones: $230   Where is the TimberNook site? All TimberNook sessions will be held at Climbers Run Nature Preserve, in partnership with the Lancaster County Conservancy. Climbers Run is located at 226 Frogtown Road, Pequea, PA 17565.   Who can attend TimberNook? Below is some information that may be helpful in deciding if your child would be successful in a TimberNook program. We are available to answer specific questions about your child, so please contact us if you have questions. As a program in the woods, children will be walking a short distance to the site; navigating over natural surfaces such as roots and uneven ground. Children should be able to follow directions such as being kind to other children and keeping an adult in sight at all times. Children should be able to stay within a designated area and not be a flight/elopement risk. TimberNook is a child-led program. This means that adults step back but tune in for many portions of the day. Peer interaction is a vital component of the program.   How do I register? Registration is open now! Click here to sign up.   Who can I contact for more information? For more information about TimberNook, email timbernook@ourexcentia.org or call 717-299-4829 ext 333. Don't forget to like our Facebook page!

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Making a SPLASH

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You peer through the window to catch a glimpse of this story hour you’ve heard about, called SPLASH (Sound Play Language Awareness Story Hour.) But where is the book? No one is reading. You see a group of eight parents and their children being led by a woman to march in place, hop up and down, and rock and roll side to side. Finally the woman says it is time to stop, and sit down (while also using the sign language for ‘stop’ and ‘sit’.) As her bottom hits the floor, she pairs a sound effect - “boom!” Once seated on the floor, she dramatically claims she’s hot; fanning herself as she lets out an exaggerated sigh, expressing “whew!” as she feigns wiping her forehead, and putting her hair up in a ponytail. This is a story hour?   Well, this is one segment of the Sound Play Language Awareness Story Hour. The parents in the class have already participated in a parent orientation to learn about the “methods to the madness.” The story hour format is designed to coach parents/caregivers how to use routine childhood experiences to support communication development. There are teachable moments in the simple, ordinary events of every day. While the situation described above might look like silly dramatics, strategies are purposefully woven into each moment:   1. Movement to help toddlers get their bodies ready to listen 2. Sign language 3. Pairing actions with sounds 4. Gesture language 5. Modeling early speech sounds   SPLASH classes are open and meaningful for children of all ability levels between the ages of two and three, yet many of the children who attend SPLASH are nonverbal or minimally verbal. When you are two years old, and “supposed to be talking,” big people spend a lot of time trying to make you talk, asking you to say things. In SPLASH, there is no pressure to imitate. Nothing we do in the class is about trying to make children talk. Rather, we are drawing them in, providing models of achievable speech and language targets in disguised ways. For example, when the woman is hot and lets out a big sigh, it is simply exhaling, and the children try it too. A loud exhale can be a starting point for the ‘h’ sound. Children who are already talking, delight in joining and imitating. They are wonderful models for their peers.   A former SPLASH parent summed up her experience this way: “The brilliance behind the program is that no child is pressured in any capacity to speak. Instead, they are led to speak, on their own accord in a fun and predictable way. This is accomplished by pairing words with actions, reading stories repetitively yet with different twists each week, and having the children experience textures, sounds and movements. The environment is fun, playful and nurturing.”   If there is a two year old in your life, take the plunge – join us at SPLASH!   Upcoming Sessions: 2019 Spring Session: Wednesdays, 9:30-10:30am March 27 - May 1 and May 15 - 29   Space is limited! Please call Excentia’s S. June Smith Center at 717-299-4829 ext. 7 to register. Learn more here.

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Loose Parts

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When exploring TimberNook of Lancaster County at Climber’s Run, a number of random items might catch your eye...a wood pallet by the creek, a spool in the grass, sheer curtains hanging from a branch, a rain gutter leaning against a tree, and baskets of odds and ends. These items, with nature as their backdrop, begin exciting the imagination almost effortlessly - but why? What’s the thinking behind including these items in the woods? The answer is that what might appear to be “random” items are actually materials for inspiring a child’s creative play, called “loose parts."   The concept of loose parts came from the British architect, Simon Nicholson, in 1971 to describe “open-ended materials that can be used and manipulated in many ways.” For example, one of our favorite loose parts at TimberNook of Lancaster County will be tree cookies. Tree cookies are small, thin, round tree branch cuttings that may be used as plates to serve friends a pretend meal, stepping stones to an enchanted forest, a delicious doughnut, or a fence for exotic animals. Loose parts spark a child’s imagination and play.   Maybe this is why a young child sometimes finds the gift box of a toy more fun than the toy itself. The box is just more “loose” and without the constraints implied by the toy’s design and function. This type of flexible, limitless imagination play is what we encourage at TimberNook of Lancaster County, and loose parts are a key part of it.   Want to read more on loose parts? Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers (Loose Parts Series) Paperback – July 12, 2016 by Lisa Daly (Author), Miriam Beloglovsky (Author) https://extension.psu.edu/programs/betterkidcare/early-care/tip-pages/all/loose-parts-what-does-this-mean http://www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/2015/loose-parts  

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Sensory Play

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Sensory processing is getting a lot of attention in the world of child development. Much of the public knowledge centers on children who are overly sensitive to sensations like noise, touch, and movement which may cause a child to respond in an aggressive or withdrawn manner. Sensory-sensitive activities are springing up in lots of locations, including Lancaster. Excentia has consulted with the Lancaster Science Factory and the Barnstormers for their sensory-friendly events. These events are much more comfortable for children who are easily stimulated.   But did you know that other types of sensory processing difficulties? In the first example, the children are too aware of sensation. However, there are also children who do not register sensation like their peers; they crave more input. They may respond to this need by being overly active and seeking sensation, or they may appear disinterested and unmotivated.   We all have tendencies based on our individual processing styles (fun fact – nothing gets into the brain except by way of our various sensory systems, and there are more than the 5 senses we commonly hear about). Personally, the tactile/touch system dictates some of my life. For example, I have a hard time getting work done if I am wearing long sleeves. Unusual, I know!   The first three years of life are referred to as the Sensory-Motor Period. Children experience lots of new adventures and their brain is organizing sensation in a functional way. They learn one of the most important skills for the future: self-regulation. Self-regulation is seen in our ability to calm down at the end of the day, pay attention to tasks, and other vital activities. Lack of self-regulation can lead to issues with sleep and behavior.   Childhood play is a major regulator of sensory stimulation. Children seem to have a natural sense of what their bodies need, just as they know when they are thirsty or hungry. The subsequent years of child development build on that foundation. Children need access to play that has them moving, processing, and problem-solving.   TimberNook creates child-led play with lots of opportunity to engage all of our senses. The sensory benefits of TimberNook have been demonstrated in a University of New Hampshire Occupational Therapy Research Study (2016). The results of the study “suggest that the quality of social interaction among the children did collectively differ between TimberNook and the children’s typical play environment. The environments were specifically different in their supportiveness regarding the objects available, the amount of space and configuration of that space, and sensory opportunities. We concluded that environments offering greater opportunities of objects, space, and sensory exploration, such as TimberNook, appear to support better quality of social interaction.​"   Are you interested in learning more? A portion of our TimberNook Information Session on January 22nd will be aimed at teaching attendees more about the developmental foundations of sensory processing. Sign up here.

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Let the Children Play

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As a pediatric occupational therapist with many years of learning in both formal and informal ways about early child development, I have developed some personal “guiding rules:" A child’s relationship to his/her mommy/daddy/loving adult is primary. Our role with an infant is to nurture and protect. Easy. The not-so-easy role is the gradual changes that should occur during childhood where parents step back and allow the child to learn from their own experiences. Allowing a child to take a risk; difficult. A child’s relationship to “Mother Nature” is a key component of development. For babies, this refers to gravity. As a society we have “over-containered” babies: infant seats, strollers, swings. Babies need to move and maximize the time they are playing on the floor. Children, too, need to move. Run. Climb. Roll down a hill. The evidence is in and it indicates that these activities promote far more than physical development. The architecture of the brain is established by our early experiences. We are sensory beings. Information gets into the brain by the sensory systems. Some of these are not widely recognized by everyone such as the proprioceptive system (information from our muscles and joints) and the vestibular system (information about movement and how we relate to gravity). They are vital components of our development. Play IS a child’s occupation. As an occupational therapist, I have frequently been asked how occupation relates to children. Play is the answer. Not all play is created equally. We must choose those opportunities that allow children to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills while having fun. We want to stimulate their imagination and creativity. Knowing the above, it will not be surprising that I was very excited to learn about TimberNook. It knows, understands and supports my “guiding rules." Tagged as the Ultimate Sensory Experience, TimberNook is both a philosophy and curriculum. Set in the outdoors, Mother Nature is used as a “third teacher” to provide an environment where children can have authentic play experiences. With multiple options for programming, TimberNook can serve toddlers from 18 months-4 years (Tiny Ones) in a parent-child setting, and 4-7 year olds (Little Wild Ones) and 7-12 year olds (Wild Ones) in a child-and-staff setting. Excentia is excited to announce that we are now a TimberNook provider and will be doing programming in 2019! We are working in partnership with the Lancaster County Conservancy to use Climbers Run Nature Preserve as our site. This unique location will have an area specifically planned to facilitate “play the TimberNook way” as well as the existing trails, meadows, a stream, and forested areas. Head over to our TimberNook Facebook page and click the ‘Like’ button to stay informed as we roll out the plans for next year. We will also start posting more detailed articles about subjects that support the philosophy of TimberNook of Lancaster County!

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