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When Bev Larson and Barb Kralj started the Old Mill Center for Children and Families in 1977 there were just seven families involved in the center’s one program, a preschool.

But it was a different kind of preschool, founded on a powerful principle that has guided the center through its first 40 years — that serving special needs children and other kids in the same classroom would pay dividends for both groups.

“When Old Mill Center was founded back in the 70s special needs children were typically isolated in their own worlds, said Geary “George” Cuniff, Larson’s younger sister and vice chair of the center’s board.

“Bev and Barb believed it needed to be different. Now considered a pioneer program in early childhood education, they developed a program based on all children benefitting from being in a mixed classroom, a classroom that accepted children of all levels of development.”

Today, the center serves more than 800 families and 2,000 children per year from its campus in southwest Corvallis. It has 57 employees and its 150 volunteers served for more than 8,200 hours in the past year. With a budget of $2.5 million the nonprofit now offers five programs and plays a vital role, filling the gaps if you will, in the educational and social service spectrum in the mid-valley.

Although mainly serving Benton County the center is expanding its offerings in Linn County. The center currently offers child, teen and family counseling and beginning this week will add counseling services to augment the “healthy families” program that already serves 33 families at a satellite office in Albany.

“We serve children from birth to the age of 18,” said Kate Caldwell, development manager for the center. “And we’re the only organization that has that wide a range. And the work that we’re doing on the early end of the continuum of care — the prevention and intervention work with younger kids — we hope will send them on a trajectory toward future success.”

"For many years," said Bettina Schempf, the center's executive director for the past five years, "our day treatment program was the only one in the county serving the age rang. Our trauma informed and sensitive approach allows families to be welcome, feel safe, accepted and supported. Our generous donor base allows us to provide services that are not funded by state contract, insurance or fees."

Some Old Mill Center programs are free and scholarships are available for those who need them. No child is turned away because of the inability to pay.

On-site visit

Thursday the Gazette-Times toured the center, stopping first in the relief nursery, where a widely diverse group of 2- and 3-year-olds had snacks and story time under the supervision of Annie Bittner, a teacher/home visitor. That second piece of Bittner’s title is crucial. The Old Mill Center works with entire families, not just the individual children that enroll in its programs.

Outside in the play area the kids in the integrated preschool, the program that started the center, were engaged in classic recess activities — swinging, running, yelling and getting into the mud. It’s another very diverse group, including those who did not grow up speaking English. Sometimes the preschool is 70 percent special needs kids, sometimes it’s 30 percent, with the the changing mix requiring different approaches.

“You have to have a lot of patience,” said Donna Brown, a co-lead teacher and 11-year Old Mill Center veteran. “We have to do what they need. They have to come first.”

The goal of the preschool is to get kids ready for kindergarten, and the link with the more challenging kids in the relief nursery is intentional. If the kids in the relief nursery can successfully move into the preschool then they have a better chance of successfully migrating to kindergarten.

“The whole premise Barb and Bev thought of in 1977 was based on the fact that most kids with special needs were not allowed in public school programs.” Caldwell said. “So they were falling behind already in terms of being kindergarten ready.”

Personal stories

Jerry Duerksen, prominent Corvallis-area property manager and Old Mill Center board member, experienced that scenario in a very personal way.

His 4-year-old grandson Joseph had social and learning disabilities and he and his wife Beckie felt that putting Joseph on “medication prescriptions alone for possibly the remainder of his lifetime was not in his best interest.”

Joseph was involved in various Old Mill Center programs for 8 years, and Jerry and Becky participated in weekly family counseling sessions. Joseph left the program at age 12, was educated in the public schools in Philomath and, Jerry says, “he is now working at a regular job and doing very well. We are extremely proud of him as our beloved grandson.”

Tatiana Dierwechter, a health navigator with Benton County, first learned about the Old Mill Center when she was seeking assistance for her son, who had been assessed as being on the autism spectrum while in the second grade.

“Prior to that we had spent several difficult years trying to help him adjust to being in school with very little success,” Dierwechter said. “He had very challenging behaviors, including being aggressive with other children, destroying property, running away and refusing to complete school work.”

Through a partnership with the Corvallis School District an Old Mill Center classroom aide was placed in the Lincoln Elementary School classroom of Dierwechter’s son. The mental and behavioral services that were provided “completely transformed his view of school as a scary, overwhelming place to one that he looked forward to attending every day," she said.

By the end of third grade the boy was fully integrated into this classroom, catching up academically and making friends.

“His aide was truly an angel to our family, and I know that if it hadn’t been for the Old Mill Center our son would not be the confident, happy and thriving middle-schooler that he is today,” Dierwechter said.

“If we can change these kids we can change the future,” summed up Caldwell.

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Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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