Caring hearts and friendly helpers provide a haven at Hattie Larlham

Jackie Valley

LeAnne Embick, youth volunteer specialist at Hattie Larlham, laughs with Julie in the Snoezelin sensory room. Stater editors digitally removed Julie’s real name, which appeared on her arm brace, from the photograph for privacy reasons.


Credit: DKS Editors

EDITOR’S NOTE: For privacy reasons, all names of the residents at Hattie Larlham have been changed. Names of the employees and high school students, however, remain the same.

“Hi there, Ray!” Valerie Green says, “Are you still smiling? You’ve been smiling all day.”

Slipping around his wheelchair, Green squats in front of Ray and fills out paperwork monitoring residents’ schedules at Hattie Larlham. The around-the-clock care center in Mantua is home to 125 children and young adults with disabilities.

In the Snoezelin Room, Ray watches neon colors – reds, oranges, blues and greens – shoot through five-foot pillars of bubbling water that are located in the multi-sensory room.

Six other residents also enjoy the mid-afternoon respite in the Snoezelin Room. A disco ball rotates from the ceiling, casting a moving wallpaper of circular shapes around the darkened room.

“You’re in such a good mood today, Ray,” Green, a direct care professional, says, interrupting the trickle-trickle of the bubbling water behind her.

Her notes are done. It’s time for a change of scenery. She glides Ray’s wheelchair across the room to a handicap-accessible swing attached to the ceiling. Once the wheelchair is secure, she gives the swing a gentle push.

The swing rocks to the beat of the theme song for a familiar pooch and his gaggle of ghost-busting friends.

“Scooby-Dooby-Doo, where are you? We’ve got some work to do now. Scooby-Dooby-Doo, where are you? We need some help from you now . “

Another resident, Angie, sits among the other six students watching the television. The seven are students of the ACHIEVE program at Hattie Larlham – a program that stands for Achieving Challenging Habilitation In Educational Vocational Experiences. It includes young adults at Hattie Larlham beyond the years of high school instruction.

In the late afternoon, the 42 ACHIEVE students are split among three rooms at Hattie Larlham for some downtime with a movie and relaxed interactions with the direct care professionals in each room.

Several students doze off in the Snoezelin Room, only to be awakened minutes later by Scooby’s faithful companion, Shaggy, exclaiming “ZOIKS, SCOOB!” after a creepy encounter onscreen.

But not Angie. Described as the “social butterfly” by Green, Angie clutches her pink-clad baby doll, half-watching “Scooby Doo” and half-gazing around the dark room.

And she smiles. When someone smiles, she smiles back. When someone speaks, she smiles back.

And she entertains. She taps a bright red, circular button that sits on her wheelchair’s desk. A string of fiber-optic lights pop on in front of her. She laughs and repeats it.

Back in an ACHIEVE classroom, more students congregate near a television to watch a movie. The ACHIEVE classroom is part of the school section of the building at Hattie Larlham. The homemade crafts and bright, primary colored-posters adorning the walls make it look like any other classroom in the country, except for the assortment of physical therapy-related devices scattered throughout the room.

One student, Julie, navigates the room by tilting her head left or right and pressing a button on her wheelchair’s table. A brace enveloping her head translates Julie’s head movements into swift action.

She makes a beeline for her destination: the nearby windows to watch Tracy Bauman, a direct care professional, fill the outdoor birdfeeders. But, who needs birds for entertainment? Bauman smashes a funny face against the glass after catching sight of her indoor supervisor, Julie.

The clock strikes four o’clock, signifying the end of another school day. Time to rest up and eat dinner before for the annual Valentine’s Day party that night.


Helpers push the residents back to their respective pods. The pods contain bedrooms for the residents, all age-appropriate decorated havens for Hattie Larlham’s residents ranging in age from two years old to some in their mid-thirties.

Despite nurses dressed in scrubs and the broad array of medical equipment, the living quarters dodge the “institutional” look of hospitals or around-the-clock care centers.

Instead, personality welcomes visitors to each bedroom. One bedroom has a Cleveland Indians’ theme, complete with a Chief Wahoo-emblazoned border. A more feminine room boasts flower wallpaper.

Until people come inside, LeAnne Embick, youth volunteer specialist, says people often form wrong assumptions about Hattie Larlham.

“Some people think we’re an orphanage, which definitely isn’t true at all,” she said. “Some people think we’re a hospital. Some people think a retirement home.”

Hattie Larlham began the Hattie Larlham Foundation in 1961 after she became frustrated by the lack of resources and programs for children born with mental retardation or severe developmental disabilities.

While working as a nurse, Hattie Larlham met Alice, a baby born with inoperable hydrocephalus, a condition resulting in the increase of fluid in the brain. After Alice’s parents sought help, Hattie and her husband took the baby into their home.

The story of Hattie and Alice mirrors that of many residents at Hattie Larlham. Their families made conscious decisions to let them live at Hattie Larlham, a home with medical assistance only a step away.

Although family visits vary among residents, a strong volunteer base built by lots of love helps fill the void for residents, whom Embick says deserve to be treated as equals.

“Everyone deserves to be liked for who they are,” she says. “Everyone deserves to have friends.”

Volunteer Susan Andrews visits regularly to be just one of those friends. Today, she flips through the latest edition of Us Weekly magazine with Gina in a large, open room behind the front greeting desk.

“That’s a cute dress,” Andrews says, pointing to an actress pictured on the red carpet at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Gina returns a half-smile.

“Do you like this girl?” Andrews asks, turning the page. “She’s very popular.”

The girl? Miley Cyrus, star of the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” show.

Julie returns with Embick to join the girl-chat session. While Embick paints Julie’s nails a soft shade of pink for the party, Julie holds a lip-shaped balloon that says, “I Love You.”

Embick says she and Julie share a kinship, partially because they are close in age. Julie often calls Embick’s cell phone simply to say, “I miss you.”

Soon Julie’s nails are dry and she waits – only one more hour until the party.


A few minutes after 6 p.m., Kenston High School’s National Honor Society arrives to get the party started. The chattering and giggling high school students immediately pump the volume in the main room behind the greeting desk.

With help from a few younger volunteers, they bring the residents who want to come from their bedrooms and pair up for the night.

Soon a group of the high school girls breaks into song: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” lyrics drift through the room, setting the mood for the party.

Once all are present, the party-goers move to another room in the school section of Hattie Larlham. A green, mock highway road sign hanging from the room’s ceiling says “Hattie Larlham Provides Heart – Next Right.”

The group descends on the table in the middle of the room to begin making Valentine’s Day cards. While “Mambo #5″ lyrics blare from the stereo – ” . A little bit of Monica in my life, A little bit of Erica by my side . “- Jack takes a cue from the song.

Jack holds hands and swings the arms of two volunteers, seniors Katie Kazimir and Calli Kluchar, while smiling and laughing.

Meanwhile, a quest to construct the most elaborate Valentine’s Day card is underway a few feet away.

“You’re going to have the best valentine ever,” junior Katelynn Ellis tells Breanna. “Is there anyone special you want to dedicate your card to – a cute boy?”

Breanna’s face erupts in a giant smile. Moments later, junior Torry Treu reveals the finished product to Ellis and Breanna: a big, red heart on a white sheet of paper, dotted with X’s and O’s and sprinkled with glitter – lots of glitter.

Down the hall, part of the group rolls, cuts and decorates “love pops” in a wheelchair-accessible kitchen. The full kitchen boasts all the normal elements – cupboards, oven, sink – but a long rectangular counter in the middle of the room caters to the residents by allowing ample room for wheelchairs.

The scent of warm sugar cookies follows the group back to the main room. The group forms a conga line prompted by an encore of “Mambo #5.” One of the high school students dances and pushes a wheelchair, all while holding and keeping intact her freshly baked, heart-shaped cookie.

The quintessential school dance song, “The Macarena,” brings the evening festivities to an end with a final round of dancing and twirling.

Like every school dance experience, memories extend beyond the final song. Armed with cookies, valentines and bright grins, the high school students and residents leave, chattering among new friends on their way up the hall.

Only several cookies and some juice remain. Glitter and a few scraps of construction paper litter the floor. All will be gone tomorrow. But for those at the party, today was a good day.

Contact administration reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].