“He was in a traditional school and I was a teacher, and I kind of just noticed something was off there,” Ramsey says of her son, then 2.
It was 2018 and Ramsey, who had taught kindergarten at eStem from 2010-2015, noticed something amiss with Wright’s speech development. While her trained teacher’s eye was able to spy the problem, she was frustrated trying to figure out how to help.
“In my case I was like, ‘Well I’m trained in that. I know what to do. I know how to teach.’ And it still wasn’t clicking,” she says.
Realizing she needed to outsource help, Ramsey turned to an old friend, sort of.
Growing up in Little Rock and attending The Anthony School, which teaches students in pre-K through eighth grade, Ramsey had a pair of friends and classmates who were dealing with learning issues and were switched over to Access, becoming some of the first students to attend the nonprofit school.
She also knew of Access through her father, publisher Walter Hussman, whose Hussman Family Foundation supports charter schools as well as journalism at the higher education level.
“I just think there’s a huge need for a school for kids whose needs weren’t being met at traditional schools,” Ramsey says.
Wright was tested and a speech delay was discovered. At Access he went through outpatient therapy, which included feeding therapy after a weight loss was discovered, and got back on track, eventually returning to a more traditional education.
The experience led Ramsey to join the Access Group Inc. board and made Wright one of the thousands of individuals with developmental delays, language and learning needs who have benefited from Access therapy and educational programs since 1994.
Some kids, like Wright, just need a little help, Ramsey says. Others may stay at Access throughout their education.
“I think it totally depends on the child,” she says. “A lot of these kids, they were at traditional schools and then had to switch over to Access because their needs were not being met.”
WITH THE PROGRAM
Access began in 1994 as a small therapy clinic for children with special needs serving seven preschool students. From that first group of clients, Access has grown, adding programs and expanding to serve its expanding enrollment.
Now, 28 years later, Access serves more than 900 families a year throughout central Arkansas and its bordering states. Access offers comprehensive evaluations, therapy services, mental health treatment, full-time education, vocational training, community integration and more. Clients range in age from 6 weeks old through adulthood.
Access’ mission, says marketing manager Krysten Levin, is to expand individual potential through innovative instruction, and its philosophy is based on the belief that all persons have the potential to learn, the capacity for change and the right to live a meaningful life in the community of their choice.
“Success at Access is measured in a variety of ways,” Levin says. “Sure, we want to help as many families as possible. However, true success for our team is witnessing our clients achieve goals that they never thought possible and find their confidence.”
The Access Early Childhood Campus is designed to provide vital early intervention for children with developmental delays, while Access Academy is a comprehensive school for children with language, learning or developmental disabilities.
Access Vocational Training comprises two adult vocational programs, Access Life and Project SEARCH Arkansas: Access Initiative. The programs teach independent living skills and provide on-the-job training for young adults.
Access also offers CES Medicaid Waiver services to help clients participate in the community of their choice. Services include case management, supportive living, supported employment, adaptive equipment, specialized medical supplies, environmental modifications and professional consultation services.
“Access has found great success in helping young adults with disabilities find purpose and independence, and we know we can do more,” Levin says. “In the U.S., only 19% of young adults with disabilities participate in the workforce.”
Attendance and demand also reflect Access’ success. It added a second campus in 2016, which doubled the client capacity, and as Access continues to create space for its various programs, it is preparing to open new classrooms on the early childhood campus in the fall.
“We know that the birth to 3-year-old window is the most crucial period in a child’s life for development,” Levin says. “In fact, vocabulary at the age of 3 is the No. 1 indicator of academic success for a child by the end of second grade. If we can provide those early intervention services to even more families, we can help so many more children expand their individual potential.”
Access has expanded its mental health department and grown its clinical services capacity, which includes expanded feeding therapy options. Access has also increased its operational budget 28.2%, while in 2021-2022 its speech, occupational and physical therapists logged 80% more hours than in the previous school year while the Access team grew by 200%.
Awareness and new understanding of developmental issues affecting children in the past several years have increased the need for non-traditional forms of education. Autism diagnoses, for example, have been on the rise for some time.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research, one in 150 children were diagnosed with autism by age 8 in 2000, one in 54 were diagnosed in 2016 and one in 44 were diagnosed in 2021.
Whether it’s educating clients with autism, helping with speech development or performing some other form of special needs therapy, every Access program and age group is trying to keep up, Levin says.
She and Ramsey agree that the COVID-19 pandemic, which interrupted education at a critical time for so many of the country’s youth, only exacerbated the need.
“Especially speech development and social and emotional development,” Ramsey says. “Because they missed a big part — 2- and 3-year-olds who missed their preschool experience.”
It hasn’t helped that the early childhood campus in the Breckenridge area of Little Rock took a direct hit from the March 31 tornado, and at press time director of development Kellie Wilhite and other members of Access’ leadership were evaluating the damage.
FUNDING THE FUTURE
Access currently operates at a budget of $17,607,847. Of its revenues, 45% comes from programs and tuition, 33% comes from therapy and evaluations and 22% comes from fundraising and donations.
Investments allowed Access, in the past fiscal year, to open four new classrooms, expand therapy and mental health services and to continue to maintain and recruit talent. It launched a new student management system and strengthened its IT infrastructure while maintaining a solid financial position and continuing its community connections.
Access’ top priorities for 2022-2023 are updates to the Kelly O’Connor Early Childhood Gym — named for Ramsey’s childhood friend who was one of the first enrollees — to include therapy spaces and an accessible bathroom.
Also on the list are improving and repairing the exterior of the Access Academy and Young Adult campus and adding a new building, expanding Access Life program options, upgrading recreational spaces at the early childhood campus and Access Academy and Young Adult campus and adding designated sensory spaces to encourage relaxation and calmness.
While the tornado damage will force reevaluation of the plans for the early childhood campus, it also underscores the need to keep the cash flow coming. Access primary fundraisers include the Access Cup golf tournament (chaired for the second consecutive year by Ramsey’s husband Joe), Bingo Bash, Access Open tennis tournament, Starry Starry Night Gala and the Access Healthy Habits Week.
Ramsey would be the first to say the events are fun and entertaining, but people don’t necessarily have to be ticket-buyers to help. Access support comes in the form of donations, advocacy, sponsorships, planned gifts within wills or trusts and volunteerism. Last year more than 150 volunteers donated 1,500 hours of service.
“Getting the community involved and just kind of raising awareness of what we do, just outreach, that has been great,” Ramsey says.
Her board work has provided plenty of opportunities for Ramsey to refine her elevator pitch — using every opportunity to approach someone and sum up the work Access does to educate and train people who need a lot of help, or just a little.
And there is quite a bit to summarize.
“Being on the board is great,” she says, “but getting into a classroom and actually seeing it — how dedicated these teachers are and these therapists and how they are so loving and kind — it’s amazing …
“I just feel like we’re so lucky in Little Rock to have such a wonderful place.”
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