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June 15, 2009

My Turn: Learning life lessons at Springbrook

This week's "My turn" column is by William Twasutyn, director of special programs at Springbrook.

As I drive to work each day, I think to myself that I have one of the most dynamic and interesting jobs around. What could be more interesting and exciting than participating in the ups and downs _ mostly ups, at Springbrook _ of a person's life? Multiply that by 550!

I have the good fortune of being the director of special programs at Springbrook, where we help support more than 550 unique individuals who range in age from 4 to 82 years. At Springbrook, we support individuals through their lifetime, including the last passage of life.

Springbrook, formerly known as the Upstate Baptist Home and later the Upstate Home for Children Inc., employs more than 800 staff who help the individuals we support to develop their potential and to live fulfilled lives. At Springbrook, we see the person as a unique individual first and their extra life challenges, diagnosed as a disability, second. We assist and support individuals who live with extra life challenges associated with their developmental disability or, as I see it, differently abled.

The abilities, interests and needs of the people we support are very diverse. We support individuals who may have a diagnosis of autism, Alzheimer's disease, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, fetal alcohol syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome and traumatic brain injury, to name a few.

At Springbrook, one quickly learns that we are all of equal value as human beings and citizens of the world. Any differences we may have as individuals only adds to the richness of our experiences within the Springbrook family. The more you work with people with any additional life challenges, the more clearly you see the individual as a person, just like yourself.

Over the years, I have always known that I get back so much more from the individuals we support than what I have given of myself. Early on, I came to realize that I was learning many life lessons, or lessons about humanity, in my work with our supported individuals.

I have enhanced my communication skills by working and interacting with individuals who are not verbal communicators. I have learned to become a better active listener by intently observing what the individual is communicating with their eyes, faces, hands or their adaptive communication device. These lessons in communication have served me well in my interactions with everyone I come into contact with.

I have learned greater patience by interacting with or watching supported individuals accomplish steps of a task with great effort and determination. I have been warmed by the glow of a smile when an individual is proud of what he has accomplished by himself without assistance. I have been enriched by observing the empathy of one of our students or adults who comforts a fellow student or housemate who is having a tough day. I have learned that I am a better skill-builder when I recognize the individual's preferred learning style and meet him halfway. It takes two to tango.

All of us at Springbrook come to realize that books and journal articles only teach you so much about any subject, condition or diagnosis. We learned so much more about Alzheimer's disease while helping to support one of our individuals who battled the disease for four years and died at age 47. Supporting our friend taught us so much that books had not. The skills we learned helped us support other Springbrook participants, as well as family members and friends who have the disease.

As mentioned before, at Springbrook we support individuals through their lifetime including the last passage of the person's life. With the help of Catskill Area Hospice staff, the great majority of our older or medically frail residents can live out their final days in their Springbrook home, instead of in the hospital or a nursing home.

We have learned many valuable life lessons while helping to support an individual, her friends and her friends through the last chapter of the person's life. We also learn lessons about what is important in life when reflecting on what made an individual happy. The happiest individuals loved their family or the staff members who became their family. They loved the simple things in life such as sitting down with a friend and having an ice cream cone or a cup of coffee. We have learned that chasing after material things will not buy happiness, good health or a fulfilled life.

So as I drive home from work each day, I take in the satisfaction of helping to make a difference _ for a lifetime.

To write for "My turn," contact Daily Star Publisher Tanya Shalor at or 432-1000, ext. 214.