UCP of Central Florida Provides a Haven for Learning and Growth
A young woman took the stage at a breakfast hosted by the United Cerebral Palsy of Central Florida. She beamed as she approached the microphone. She had been born prematurely and had suffered a two-hour-long seizure when she was young. Doctors said she would never walk, never talk, but there she stood before the crowd, advocating for the education and advancement of people with disabilities.
Sincere accounts of personal passion and witnessed miracles cascade from Dr. Ilene Wilkins, CEO of the United Cerebral Palsy of Central Florida. “Miracles happen every day,” she said. “I think one of the things that makes us unique is that, unfortunately, when parents get a diagnosis, the physicians and doctors often spend a lot of time telling the parents what their child won’t do. We focus on what their child could do.”
The UCP of Central Florida is a holistic system of seven tuition-free charter schools, support services, and therapy programs that focus on the inclusion, education and advancement of all children. “When I started at UCP in the early 90s, we were a relatively small agency,” Wilkins said. “We served just over 100 children with a budget of about $500,000. Today we serve 3,500 children and our budget just topped $28 million. It’s been steady growth of 10 percent to 20 percent per year.”
The Need for Change
The first half of the 20th century was a grim time for many, including those with disabilities. Appalled at the lack of care, inhumane treatment and dismal living conditions of some of these individuals, the parents of children with cerebral palsy came together to form an organization that sought to acknowledge and advocate for those who had no platform to do so.
“During that time, doctors often used to tell the parents to put their child in a hospital, in a nursing home or even up for adoption because there were no options for the parents,” Wilkins said. “UCP set out to change that.”
As a result, in 1949, the United Cerebral Palsy organization was formed. UCP has since blossomed into a nationwide affiliate network that enables equality, growth and independence in children who have cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by abnormal brain development that affects a person’s movement, muscle tone and posture.
Central Florida’s chapter has been dedicated to enriching the lives of children of all abilities since 1955. The UCP of Central Florida serves children and young adults, from birth to age 21, by providing educational services and a variety of therapeutic programs.
SET of Services
Inclusion and early intervention set the foundation for the UCP of Central Florida. “The earlier you get involved in a child’s life and development, the better the outcome all around,” Wilkins said. Today the organization offers a SET of services: support, education and therapy.
Support services include free individual and family counseling for children with disabilities and their families, parenting labs, pre-screening for babies, teen mom counseling and care for those with high-risk babies, support groups for parents, and recreational activities for children.
Educational programs provide tuition-free access to an experiential learning environment for children with and without disabilities. Six of the seven UCP campuses throughout Central Florida are elementary schools that provide a unique atmosphere for the students. UCP has a one-to-one iPad program, meaning each student has a tablet to use as a hands-on communication tool. The curriculum integrates project-based learning, performing arts, music classes and dance.
Therapy ranges from physical to speech, occupational to music. The treatments aid in the development of everything from gross motor skills to sentence structure and the formation of words.
The impact of offering a united, multidisciplinary set of services not only affects the student’s progress, but it equips the teachers and therapists to accomplish more from an informed, firsthand perspective.
“In a more traditional setting, a child would get pulled out of class and go down the hall to get therapy or get therapy after school. In our case, the therapist is in the classroom as a part of the team, working with the child,” Wilkins said. “We work hard to ensure every child gets what they need and to give them the best tools for success.”
Passions emanate from interest, enchantment and experience. Coincidences arise from fortuitous encounters. Wilkins experienced the union of these phenomena, and it changed her life. She was adopted at birth. She decided to track her ancestry and found that she had a number of biological siblings, including a sister who happened to be moving to Orlando at the time, with her daughter and grandson.
“My nephew has autism,” Wilkins said. “Two years ago, I invited him to try out a class at UCP. In a typical school, he would have been placed in a self-contained classroom, where he would be just with other students with disabilities. Some kids really need that, but in my nephew’s case, he has thrived from that peer interaction, social interaction and intellectual and academic stimulation. What he’s been able to accomplish in less than two years is just amazing.”
One of the ideas that UCP of Central Florida fosters in the community is the idea that young children don’t recognize one another as different. They don’t categorize one another by their ability or disability; they simply see another human, another friend.
Wilkins advocates for parents to integrate their children into inclusion-model institutions, as it serves as a catalyst for compassion and problem-solving skills. “At the end of the day, if you could only have one thing, you want your child to be a good person,” she said. “Our kids really are. Even in this age of bullying, these are kids that have grown compassion and problem-solving skills, among other wonderful executive functioning skills, naturally. They’re living respect, they’re living compassion. They’re becoming the type of kids we all want our children to become.”