Milestones 2017 Benefit Honoree Rochelle Nyer has devoted three decades of her professional career and personal life serving families with children on the autism spectrum. She traces her involvement with Milestones Autism Resources back to its early years, when she attended the organization’s very first conference in 2003. Impressed with its impact on local families, Rochelle knew she wanted to participate and help make a difference.
“You can’t learn from a textbook as much as you can learn from people who live it every day,” Rochelle says. “That’s why I have such admiration for this organization. They have helped so many people who live it every day.”
Fifteen years after attending that first conference, Rochelle continues to make integral contributions to Milestones, serving on the board, being a part of the planning committee and serving as co-chair of the annual conference.
“Being a part of Milestones has made me so appreciative of what it does to help advocate for children and families,” she says. “I am more than humbled to be a part of and recognized by this great organization.”
Tell us about your involvement with Milestones.
I have been involved with Milestones since I went to the very first conference, 15 years ago. I was so impressed that it was one of the more organized conferences. I said to (co-founder) Ilana that I wanted to be more involved. I helped to distribute posters, I was on the conference planning committee. I remember those early days when we went to (co-founder) Mia’s house – and her kids were sitting on her lap in the living room!
It was an organization that started with very little and has grown exponentially over the years. In the beginning it was just Ilana and Mia, essentially “volunteering” countless hours and making Milestones what it is today – with an exceptional staff that impacts the community in a tremendous way.
Tell us about yourself. Do you have a personal connection to autism?
Though I don’t have a personal connection to autism, I have been working with families with children on the spectrum for close to 30 years. I’m a Speech-Language Pathologist at Akron Children’s Hospital and have been there for 28 years. I do assessments for children on the spectrum as well as school-age children with speech and language disorders.
I’m from Cleveland – born and bred. I’ve been married for almost 47 years to my husband Mark, also a native Clevelander, and we have two daughters, Shoshanna Nyer, who is a Rabbi and Director of Lifelong Learning at Suburban Temple Kol-Ami; and Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, who is a preschool teacher, playwright and has taught improv to children on the spectrum. She is also a mental health activist. We have two grandchildren – Emily, who is 8, and Rafi, who is 11.
Both of our daughters have been involved with Milestones; Shoshanna has also been a speaker. We’ve volunteered with Strike It Big, Milestones’ annual bowling fundraiser. Our grandchildren have been involved in peer groups. We are a Milestones family!
Thinking back, why did you agree to be on Milestones board?
I was so impressed by how the whole organization is run and I have always had a desire to work with families on the autism spectrum, so it was an honor to be asked to be on the board. I have learned so much from other professionals and parents, and it has been awesome to watch the organization grow so much. For example, our conference gets larger and larger every year, with our most recent one being the largest one yet. It attracts people all over the world!
How do you think Milestones impacted the community at that time? And today?
In the beginning Milestones was focused on younger children on the spectrum and early intervention. Today, we are looking to help get services for young adults who age out of school services. What happens when school-age children are now out in the world? We are addressing issues like housing, employment, independent living and how to cultivate a vibrant social life.
What do you enjoy about your work with Milestones?
I’ve made lifelong relationships and I enjoy learning from other professionals, as well as from families. Also, the board meetings are atypical in the fact that they begin and end on time! And at every meeting there is a story about a family or a personal perspective about autism. We have recently become more involved with Cleveland Public Schools; it’s good to find out what other communities are doing and to help serve families across the socio-economic spectrum, too – whether they are from urban areas, small towns or affluent suburbs.
How have you personally been affected by your affiliation with Milestones?
Personally, I’m watching a generation of my grandchildren being so much more compassionate and inclusive. Our daughter, Shoshanna, has started an inclusion program at her temple. There is one particular story that I love: there was a mother at the temple who was concerned because her daughter, who is on the spectrum, was often excluded from social events. My granddaughter, Emily, wanted to invite this little girl to her 7th birthday party. Her mother said to her, “You know, you really made the girl’s parents happy that you included her.” To which Emily replied, “Mom, just because she doesn’t talk like the other kids doesn’t mean someone should ignore her like she’s a rock.”
It’s wonderful how children have become empathetic. They become sensitized. I think families have fought so hard. I grew up during a time when there was no inclusion at all. I think it is so wonderful to see that we are raising a generation that is inclusive.
What is the most important thing you’d like a friend, relative, or neighbor to know about Milestones?
Milestones, although we don’t provide direct services, we can help connect you with resources and connect you with other parents. We look for the needs and we help meet them. We do it in the local community. It truly is a parent-professional collaboration. The staff is extremely devoted and committed to what goes on. The most important thing to realize is you’re not alone.