Milestones 2017 Honoree Tabatha Devine – Outstanding Educator

Tabatha Devine, Milestones 2017 honoree of the Outstanding Educator Award, says that working with individuals on the autism spectrum has helped her become a more compassionate, caring and understanding person.

“To make others look past the disability and to see the person, I’ve always thought it was necessary to educate those around the person with special needs,” Tabatha says. She also strives for “more” for her students: more opportunities, more experiences, more adventure. “I always wanted my students to participate in prom, sporting events, graduation, mainstream classes and become competitively employed.”

For the past 15 years, Tabatha has served as a Transition Coordinator for the Westlake City School System, working with students with disabilities. For Tabatha, going above and beyond meant becoming a class advisor so her students could attend prom for the first time. It meant becoming a coach so her students wouldn’t feel intimidated by others and be given a fair chance. She made sure her students attended graduation ceremonies with the rest of the student body while providing all support necessary to make this happen. She approached area businesses to promote her students’ abilities and to help create positions and provide support to individuals who may never have thought to hire a person with special needs.

Prior to working at Westlake City Schools, Tabatha served extensively in the region as an Intervention Specialist, including at St. Vincent St. Mary’s High School in Akron (where she introduced inclusion and helped integrate students with special needs into traditional classrooms); at Coventry High School, also in Akron (where she founded the school’s first classroom for students with developmental disabilities), and at Lakewood High School (where she helped bring special needs students together with mainstream students in a literacy program).

Tabatha has worked for multiple group homes, activity centers and has attended meetings and court hearings to advocate for students and their rights. She spends her summers working for the Cuyahoga Employment Partnership (CEP) as a Job Developer and has served on the Milestones Strike It Big committee for the Westside for the past three years raising funds to help local families impacted by autism.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

Over time, I’ve come across many people who are judgmental and prejudiced without knowing anything about the person who stands before them. The belief that the disability comes before the person is one of the biggest obstacles I think this population deals with on a daily basis. To make others look past the disability and to see the person, I’ve always thought it was necessary to educate those around the person with special needs.

So when asked how do I feel my efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community? I say through reaching out to others to show them how to become friends with, to participate with, to work with and/or alongside, to employ and to advocate for people with special needs to provide a person with a sense of belonging, pride, empowerment and hope.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Because I have worked with, alongside and for people who have autism or special needs, it has helped me to become a more compassionate, caring and understanding individual. My experiences have helped me to look at things differently because I try and view our world through their eyes. It helps me to stand stronger because I chose to be a part of their world. A parent once wrote that their child would make a difference in this world and he knew this because he felt just by knowing his child with autism, it had changed his own life for the better.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

If you take part in making positive changes in the life of a person with autism or someone with special needs, know that your life too, will change forever. You will try harder, care more and live your life better because they will inspire you!

Milestones 2017 Honoree Nicole Gerami – Community Innovator

Speech-language pathologist Nicole Gerami has served children in public schools, clinical settings and private practice for more than two decades. A Milestones 2017 honoree of the Community Innovator Award, Nicole is the founder of Friendship in Teams (FIT™), a groundbreaking program for children with autism. In its 10th year, FIT is Northeast Ohio’s only social skills program where children learn valuable social thinking, conversation and self-regulation tools in a fun, movement-based environment. FIT has branched out to include a Cleveland east and west side operation, as well as a Middle Tennessee branch. Together, these programs serve hundreds of children with autism and other disabilities.

Nicole is also founder and owner of Nicole Gerami, LLC, where she and her staff treat children with autism in individual and small group therapy. She is a member of the adjunct faculty in the Department of Communication Sciences at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University where she trains graduate students in communication sciences so that they can learn her methodologies and help children on the autism spectrum.

Fully licensed by both the Ohio Board of Speech Pathology and Audiology and the Ohio Department of Education, Gerami is also a certified member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and a frequent lecturer for the Ohio Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Milestones, Northern Speech Services, and the University Hospitals of Zürich in Switzerland.

Gerami is in the process of publishing her next book in Switzerland about helping children with autism learn to engage in conversation and narratives.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

I have dedicated my career to helping children on the autism spectrum. Through my publications in the US and Switzerland, lectures, and the development of both my private practice and the FIT Program, I have created a broad range of therapy services for children with autism. This has allowed me to reach approximately 200 children and families per week. My passion for helping children to communicate effectively and to maximize their ability to improve their social skills has spurred my creativity in designing new and exciting programs where children can thrive among their peers.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Helping children with autism has taught me more than any formal education could have ever given me. I have learned, by listening to children and their families, how to be innovative in my approach to creating programs that make a difference. My areas of expertise as well as my publications have come directly from attending to what the children need and what they tell me.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

The greatest inspiration comes from the children. Take time to listen and observe. The kids will tell you what they need.

Milestones 2017 Honoree Lucas Estafanous – Personal Achievement

For Lucas Estafanous, 18, Milestones 2017 honoree of the Personal Achievement Award, the sky’s the limit. Though as a young child he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and later, at age 13, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, Lucas, with the help and support of his family and the Milestones community, pushed forward to pursue his passion – mathematics.

The Orange High School senior is known by his math teachers and peers as a skilled test taker. He is admired for his ability to solve complex equations with finesse. Which is why, this fall, Lucas will attend Case Western Reserve University where he will major in mathematics.

“It felt really good when I got my acceptance letter,” he says. “College will be a really cool experience.”

In addition to this major accomplishment, Lucas has been an intern at Milestones for the past two years. During his internship, Lucas has learned hard and soft employment skills. Milestones has benefitted greatly from his ability to successfully complete a wide variety of tasks in a busy office environment.

When Lucas is not hitting the books or interning, he enjoys hobbies including tennis and a variety of activities on his computer (he says he hates when people generalize video games in conversation).

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

I feel like I have changed the way that people view autism. They may have not been educated on how wide of a spectrum autism covers, and I hope meeting me has opened their eyes a little bit.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Every time I change someone’s perspective on ASD I feel like I’ve made one more step in the right direction.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

 I want to show people that not all people with autism are the same. That sometimes a person on the spectrum will have more in common with their neuro-typical friend than another person with ASD.

Milestones 2017 Honoree Dr. Stephen L. Ruedrich – Research & Medicine

Dr. Stephen L. Ruedrich, Milestones 2017 honoree of the Research & Medicine Award, was profoundly impacted by his first encounter with patients with autism and intellectual disabilities. Inspired by the courage of the individuals he met, Ruedrich decided to dedicate his career to making life better for persons with developmental disabilities and behavioral disorders.

More than 40 years after that first experience, Dr. Ruedrich, who serves as the L. Douglas Lenkoski Professor of Psychiatry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, continues to positively impact the region by helping to demystify the process of seeking and receiving psychiatric care for patients and families.

In addition to his role at Case, Dr. Ruedrich serves as Vice-Chair, Chief of the Division of Adult Psychiatry and Chief Quality Officer in the Department of Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland. At University Hospitals, he has continued and expanded a focused clinical practice serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities with co-morbid psychiatric or behavioral disorders.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

I hope that our work has made it easier for persons in Northeast Ohio with autism and special needs, who also have psychiatric or behavioral disorders, to seek and receive psychiatric care, and for their families to participate in their assessment and treatment. Our goal has been to normalize and demystify this process for patients and families, so that their level of comfort and confidence in seeking psychiatric care makes our office visit just one more pleasant community outing.

How has helping others shaped your life?

My first opportunity to work with persons with autism and intellectual disabilities was in 1978, at a State of Ohio Developmental Center. From the first day, I was inspired by the courage of the individuals I met, and the grace and dedication of the families and staff caring for them. It was an easy decision to want to become a part of this universe. I have been blessed since by every encounter with patients and families in the special needs community, and have tried to learn from each experience. I hope I am still learning, because they are still teaching.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

My favorite bumper sticker offers this simple wisdom: “The soul of our nation is tied to how well we treat our most vulnerable members.” Together, we have much work to do.

Milestones 2017 Honoree Saundra Jordan – Parent Tribute

As a Parent Mentor for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Saundra Jordan, our 2017 honoree of the Parent Tribute Award, has served Cleveland parents for 13 years. As a parent of a child (now an adult) with a disability, her daughter’s success is a testament to Saundra’s dedication. She is a proud mother of a college graduate, which has provided fuel in effectively mentoring countless parents over the years.

Along with her years working with Cleveland parents, Saundra has over 20 years of volunteer work around all aspects of the Special Education process. Her many accomplishments include the 2017 Milestones Autism Conference Steering Committee, Parent Leadership Council SST3, Parent Advisory Committee of Cleveland Schools, Co-Founder of Parent Support Groups, Facilitator for the Cleveland/Akron Regional Forum addressing Ohio students with disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System in 2006, receiving the Outstanding Parent Service Award (SST3) in 2000, and serving on ESY Task Force helping to Review and Revise Guideline for Extended School Year in 1999. Saundra has also served as a member of Parent School Improvement Program and volunteered as a Surrogate Parent in the Orange City Schools.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

I believe every child/student should be given the opportunity to experience all levels of learning. There should not be a ceiling placed on the education of any child/student. While embracing that belief, I would encourage parents and families and community members to work toward expecting the best from our children and also seeing college as an option for their own children/students.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Helping others has proven to me the old adage, “One person can make a difference.” It has given me the courage, the purpose and the confidence that only serving can promote.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

When you serve for the betterment of others, you discover your own powers and strength, talents and gifts. The journey you take while helping others becomes your journey toward the true meaning of life – LOVE.

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