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Chapter Five

Learning Creates Empowerment
Obtaining information and skills gives a person more personal power. All of our services emphasize learning and skill acquisition in areas that are suitable to each person's interests, age and cultural background. We emphasize activities that provide for growth and opportunity and are purposeful to the creation of a fulfilling life.
What if you’d never been taught to take care of yourself, or to read, or to do one of your favorite activities?
You would likely depend on someone else to help you or to do things for you. Without question, your sense of personal power is enhanced through learning. That’s why learning is one of Stone Belt’s core principles. All of Stone Belt services emphasize learning and skill acquisition in areas that are suitable to each person’s interests, age, and cultural background. We emphasize activities that provide for growth and opportunity and are purposeful to the creation of a fulfilling life.

Stone Belt started as a school and still supports clients and staff to learn essential skills and to gain life-changing knowledge. With this, they are empowered to do more for themselves and others and, hopefully, to feel more self-confident. We indoctrinate our staff with the idea of looking for “teachable moments” or times when a situation gives the person a chance to learn something in the real world context. Examples of this are plentiful and may include a chance to ask someone for directions, to make out a shopping list of needed items for a recipe, or to hold a door open for someone as a courtesy at the shopping center.
Being Empowered
Empowerment to make choices in one’s life is essential. However, sometimes a person with a disability has limited experiences and does not understand the full range of choices and the consequences of those choices. We often emphasize the concept of informed choice. A person makes an informed choice when it is done based on an understanding of options available and how that choice may affect his or her life.
Lifelong Learning coordinator Eric Ford: “The other day I was giving Ashley a ride home. I asked her if she was going to vote in the upcoming election. She said, No – I wouldn’t be able to make a choice about what I don’t know. I told her I could show her bios on candidates published by The Arc. I asked her if that would change her mind about voting. She thought about it and then said, ‘Yeah – I could do it then.’”
Lifelong Learning: More Than Skill Building
Stone Belt’s Lifelong Learning program is about more than skill building – It’s about building self-awareness and self-esteem.

Hunter Smith entered Stone Belt’s Lifelong Learning program about two years ago. He had participated in Shares day program in Shelbyville and started to refuse to go. He would sit at home all day or he walk around the town of Hope.

When Hunter came to Lifelong Learning, he would not talk or make eye contact and would wear at least five t-shirts each day.

But now, Hunter talks in full sentences and eye contact is wonderful. Hunter enjoys his community programs, which include fitness club, swimming and bowling.

Columbus Lifelong Learning coordinator Pat Baker says she was so excited when Hunter came into her office and said he did not want to bowl anymore. “He is now making choices of his interest,” she says, adding that his layering of clothing is now reduced to two t-shirts and his hygiene has improved tremendously.

“The supports we provide are really fluid,” says Susan Russ, director of Lifelong Learning. “They can choose where they go.”

Russ explains that the facilities are set up with classrooms that have a schedule of activities throughout the day on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. “They have sort of a homeroom location, they’re assigned to a place, so they know where to go in the morning and have someone who knows them really, really well. From there, they can visit any classroom and participate in any activity, as they are able.”

Russ says that music and art are popular activities, and that music is powerful. “We’ve really put a lot of our eggs in the basket of arts in general,” she adds, “and that’s to help people with that side of their lives.”

Lifelong Learning programs in Bedford, Bloomington and Columbus all have art studios with art hanging on the walls. The people in those programs describe themselves as artists.

“They deserve to have activities and learning experiences that adults would have,” Russ says. “We try to help them achieve their goals. We’re always trying to make sure something new is happening.”

She adds that one of the newer areas, Making Space, operates under the concept that given the opportunity and necessities, people will create. Russ explains, “If you’ve got a place, and you put materials in that space, people will create.”
How Skills Development Supports Learning
Skills development is all about enhancing the individual’s and family’s ability to improve skills in the areas of emotional control, stress and time management, problem solving, conflict resolution, communication, concentration, community integration, and other activities of daily living.

Stone Belt’s Skills Development services can be provided in the actual classroom setting with no disturbance to the class. Case management services include coordinating services and communication with other provider agencies, and accessing community resources.

Skills Development coordinator Jennifer Hammond explains that the program is meant to help clients learn skills to better manage their mental health symptoms and to have happier, healthier lives. Stone Belt operates this program through a partnership with Centerstone. Those entering the program must have a qualifying mental health diagnosis and a quantifiable need, Hammond notes.

When entering the skills program people explain what they want to learn and how their mental health issues are a barrier to achieving success. They are then matched one-on-one with a skills clinician, who works with the person in their home, community, or school setting.

An example of a mental health diagnosis that might be addressed is anxiety. A person will be presented with several different coping skills and then go with the clinician into the community to practice. For a student with attention-deficit disorder, a skills clinician may present “ways to get rid of the wiggles and pay attention in class,” Hammond says. Other mental health diagnoses may be generalized anxiety, major depression, bipolar mood disorders, attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, regulated mood disorder or any other diagnosis that prevents success.

“We are helping people have happier, healthier lives,” Hammond says, explaining that skills development, like Stone Belt, focuses on a person-centered plan. “We work a lot with folks on social skills, how to start conversations, where to go in the community to meet people who like the same things you do, helping folks connect with community and friendships. We have a lot of people that that’s their goal: They want more friends.”

Every three months, the skills staff reviews a person’s goals and objectives to make sure the focus is still on what is important for the person. “We want the client to be empowered, because it makes for lasting success,” Hammond says.

She adds that the intent of the skills program isn’t to stay in long-term, but if someone has a life event that necessitates them re-entering the program, they can return. “It’s meant to be intensive and short-term,” she says, explaining that besides the three-month review, an evaluation takes place at six months.

“We’re trying to work our way out of a job. We’re always working toward people graduating out of the program and we celebrate when they graduate.”
Having Fuller Lives in the Community
By emphasizing learning and skills development, Stone Belt is empowering people with developmental disabilities to embrace their own sense of power, gain independence, build self-esteem, and take more control over their own lives so they are able to have fuller lives in the community.

Tommy Cunningham: Learning to Control Anger

from I Am You: Stories of Resilience, Courage, and Power

Tommy Cunningham was born three weeks premature, so his life started with struggles. By the age of 3, he was diagnosed as a hypotonia—or floppy—baby, characterized by weak muscle tone.

“They said he would never walk,” recalls his mother, Katie Floerke. “They kinda hit that diagnosis wrong. I don’t think he was ever a floppy baby.”

Katie explains that, as Tommy aged, he walked and was potty trained, despite doctors saying those milestones would never happen. “Naturally, he overcame all of that with about a year delay,” she says. “He had a lot of help to overcome his struggles.”

Some of that help included physical and occupational therapy, as well as First Steps, Indiana’s early intervention program providing services to infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities.

By kindergarten, though, she got a phone call from his school that something wasn’t right. “They said he was living in a fantasy world and thought everyone was a Star Trek character,” Katie says. After seeing a psychiatrist, Tommy was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.

“I was shocked,” Katie recalls. “I had been working with people with disabilities for 11 years, and then finding out my son had autism. It was quite a shock, but I knew avenues to getting him help in school and for moving forward and getting the best out of his life.”

Katie was a strong advocate for inclusion and keeping Tommy in public school, and he did well until high school, when homework became extremely hard.

“In elementary and middle school, I hired tutors to help him, but my rule is, if it goes past an hour and a half of homework a night, it stops. He’s not going to do it,” she says.

When Tommy reached high school, his parents let him choose, and he wanted to be in a self-contained class.

“It kinda goes against every grain of my being, because now that he is out of school, he is part of the community, and he should have been full inclusion all the way,” Katie explains.

Those years were difficult for Tommy.

“During high school, there were people teasing each other all around the high school,” he says. “They were teasing me, and I just really did not like that. It made me a little uncomfortable.”

When Tommy was teased or bullied, he often lashed out in anger.

“One time, I was like, ‘Am I going to yell or push at this kid because he was making me mad?’ I decided to yell and the bus monitor came over and she held me, and I was lucky as one of my friends came and helped me.”

Katie says Tommy’s anger is one of his greatest obstacles, but he’s trying to do better.

“Tommy is very aware of his anger. He will go online and try to find ideas on how to keep his anger under control, and even when he’s in an anger fit, when he can finally get past the anger, he’s remorseful,” Katie says. “Recently, he said he just wished he could stop the anger before it gets to the point where he’s yelling.”

Tommy, now 21, loves traveling, especially on cruise ships. After he graduated from high school, he says his mom made “a big mistake” by taking him to a nightclub while on a cruise.

“The nightclub had a lot of dancing, and the number one thing my mom was not liking was that there were not very nice people in there,” he says. “Once I turned 21, I started going to casinos.”

While he’s traveled domestically and internationally, Tommy’s dream trip is to visit New York City. However, he remembers all his trips fondly.

“My first-ever trip, we were heading to Gatlinburg, and I had me the biggest scare in my life: It was driving a go-kart. Those go-karts really do scare me,” he says.

Another trip he took was to Niagara Falls. “I got to see the falls up close on the Maid of the Mist. That is so nice, the Maid of the Mist.”

Sitting at the base of Niagara Falls, Tommy says he was wondering how the water hydrated. “And I was, like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! This water comes from the Great Lakes!’ I watched a documentary about it.”

Besides watching documentaries, Tommy does research on the computer about places he would like to visit. “I’ve been a really big whiz on the computer,” he says, adding that he also looks at his email and searches different job listings. “I try to help out the employment department on finding out the best jobs. I’ve been trying to help out.”

If he could have any job he wanted, Tommy knows exactly what that would be.
“I would like to live on a cruise ship and one day be the cruise director or the youth director,” Tommy says. “I know that all I have to do is make sure my passport is ready, make sure my visa is ready, and make sure all of the proper paperwork is ready.”

Until then, Tommy spends time volunteering. “Right now, I’ve been doing volunteer work and I’ve been going to the First Church of God every other Monday. I’ve been going to the Catholic Church and I’ve been going to Mount Pleasant,” he says. “At the First Church of God and the Catholic church, I clean out the sanctuaries, and then at Mount Pleasant, I fold the bulletins.”

Getting a job is all part of his path to independence. He also wants to move from the group home where he lives to an apartment, so he can have more independence.

“The thing I’m mostly worried about is the independent living. It’s when I get ready to live on my own,” he says, adding that transitioning into a more independent living situation means he can work more hours at his community job and ride the bus to and from work. “The bus has been really fun lately.”

Katie also wishes more independence for her son.

“My goal would be for him to actually take charge of his life and be happy,” she says, explaining that getting into a supported living program would make that more likely. “Eventually, if he could get his anger under control, I could see him driving, I could see him having a full-time job, having a girlfriend. I foresee him having what I would call a normal life.”

Read more stories of resilience, courage, and power:

I Am You: Stories of Resilience, Courage, and Power
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