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Story Last modified at 1:12 p.m. on Thursday, February 3, 2011

Rally to highlight needs
FOCUS After School Program fills gap in community

BY MELISSA DeVAUGHN
Alaska Star

photo:News

Allen Oscar (left) and care provider David Rushbrook enjoy a foosball game at FOCUS in late January. FOCUS offers an after-school program that gives students a chance to socialize after school.
STAR PHOTO by MELISSA DeVAUGHN

The FOCUS Inc. After School Program meeting room is festive on a recent Friday afternoon. It's an employee's birthday, and the participants there are about to eat cake and celebrate. Balloons decorate the main room, and a table is set up with plates and cups for the cake and drinks. The families about to arrive for the party have something to celebrate too: the niche FOCUS fills in the local community for students with special needs.

FOCUS, which stands for Family Outreach Center for Understanding Special Needs, has operated the After School Program for two years, serving the needs of local young people in middle school through age 22. The program has 25 students, and, according to coordinator Eileen Robinson, the need still exists. The office routinely gets calls and referrals for new students, who pay for the program. mostly through their Medicaid funding.

"We saw two needs," Robinson said of FOCUS' reasoning for starting the After School Program. "The parents of these individuals need coverage for their kids after school. And second, these kids need friends. And we're all friends here."

A SENSE OF BELONGING

Buses drop off the students, who are accompanied into the room by aides and care providers. They quickly fall into a routine – some of them heading straight for a lounge area, others taking up position at a foosball table. Others notice the hubbub of the birthday celebration. Providers discreetly distract their wards when they begin to get loud or restless, channeling their energies into productive activities.

At the foosball table, David Rushbrook keeps seventh-grader Allen Oscar focused on the game. They move with the ease of two people who interact well.

"This is social and recreational, but we also want it to be educational," Robinson said. "We are structured and we try to do an activity every day."

Some days, Robinson said, the students go swimming. Other days they play kickball in the field at Town Square across the road from the FOCUS offices. They visit local businesses, such as Super Suppers, and learn skills to help them become more independent.

Once, Robinson said, the students visited Pizza Hut, where they toured the facility, made their own pizzas and then took their pies home to share.

"Most of the community has been great, and most of the community has been overwhelmingly accepting," Robinson said. "And for businesses, it can be a tax write-off to offer their help."

Sheila Anderson is a provider with ASP. She said the students enjoy craft and art projects, too, and that she is constantly amazed at their abilities.

"We've written a song and made a movie," Anderson said. "We go to Konrad's Workshop (a Peter's Creek pottery studio hosted by one of FOCUS' clients, Konrad Koehler, and his family), and we do a lot of crafty things here."

The community is invited to the first-ever Eagle River Key Campaign rally, set for 2:30 p.m. Feb. 24 in Eagle River's Town Square. Students from FOCUS' After School Program will wave banners and meet with those who want to learn how they can help. There will be free hot beverages and snacks. FOCUS can be reached at www.focusoutreach.org or 694-6002.

Anderson holds out a bucket of small clay reproductions of fruits and vegetables that the students made, each displaying an impressive level of detail: small cobs of corn with individual niblets attached in rows; asparagus with intricate fringed ends; grapes, clustered in small purple bundles.

"Each one has a talent that you don't know until you get to know them," she said.

GETTING NOTICED

Despite its two years in operation, FOCUS' after school program – and the nonprofit as a whole – goes about its business with little fanfare. The nonprofit's most recent publicity involved the arrest of a former worker there accused of child sex abuse for inappropriately touching a child he helped care for, as well as the child's sibling.

Devastated by the news, FOCUS employees, including executive director Seth Kelley, immediately addressed the issue, publicly denouncing the actions of Jacob J. Miller, 20, who is awaiting a hearing on his case in March.

In a letter Kelley wrote to the community last fall, he reiterated the nonprofit's dedication to helping some of the area's most vulnerable residents.

State Rep. Bill Stoltze does not need to be convinced of FOCUS' value in Chugiak-Eagle River. FOCUS has been around for more than 30 years – for years in Chugiak before moving to its downtown Eagle River location – and its work with students with special needs has strengthened the community, he said.

"These young adults and kids that are transitioning (from child to adult) are part of our community, and FOCUS has been a special part of that," said Stoltze, who has been a longtime supporter of the program and has a nephew with Down syndrome.

Stoltze said while he has not necessarily funneled state money into the nonprofit's coffers, he is a vocal advocate for the program – and for state programs that can help FOCUS' clients.

He has brought representatives from the Mental Health Trust out to see the work of the organization, and he has worked with representatives from Matanuska Telephone Association to help sponsor the program's efforts. First National Bank of Alaska also has become a sponsor.

"We have a lot of supporters in this community," he said. "The businesses have been really good, and I'm so grateful when people, like at MTA, step up and help these types of programs."

One of the state's largest supporters of people with disabilities is the Key Coalition, an Alaska organization that works to create integrated communities. Stoltze said the Coalition has been to Juneau repeatedly, getting word out and lobbying for its needs.

This year, the Key Coalition will have a presence in Eagle River for the first time, Shejana Ivanoska, of FOCUS, said, with a rally at Town Square. ASP students will work on banners and meet and greet local residents who want to know more about the program.

"We want all of our kids to participate," Ivanoska said. "We're making banners, and we're very excited, hoping to have a good turnout."

Each year's rally focuses on specific shortfalls within the special-needs community, Ivanoska said. This year, the Key Coalition is sending its Legislative Priorities list to Juneau with five requests, the highest among them reducing the state's wait list for community services.

"Right now there are almost 900 on the wait list that have needs," Ivanoska said.

"We just want people to welcome our program into their business," Kelley said. "Financial donations are great, but we'd like people to start talking about interviewing people with disabilities" or making them feel welcome in others ways.

"The reason FOCUS is even here is we want to make our community fully integrated."

For Stoltze, the work that FOCUS accomplishes – with its special services, after school program, assistance to families – is invaluable. As Konrad Koehler's uncle, he said he not only has seen the program help his nephew blossom – but the family as a whole.

"FOCUS does a whole lot of things, and they help the families too," Stoltze said. "My other nephew is a better human being for nurturing his older brother. My sister and brother-in-law are involved. ... FOCUS has been a special place."

Melissa DeVaughn can be reached at melissa.devaughn@alaskastar.com.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, February 3, 2011.