AUGUSTA — Nearly 200 children in need of developmental support are on a waiting list to get into therapy and intervention programs at the Children’s Center in Augusta, but officials hope to speed up their enrollment with a $5 million, privately funded expansion that is to more than double the facility’s size.

Among the children are those with cerebral palsy, mental health issues, chromosome diseases, Down’s syndrome, a wide range of other medical conditions and delayed development.

Many, such as Kwan Nash, who has just turned 5 and been treated at the center since he was about 2 1/2, are diagnosed with autism.

Kwan’s wait seemingly was not too long, at three or four months after his diagnosis, according to his parents Jon and Kosal Nash of Augusta.

But when it comes to early childhood development, Jeff Johnson, the center’s executive director, said time is fleeting. Getting help when kids are still young and the neurotransmitter pathways in their brains are still being created is crucial.

He told a gathering of donors to the fundraising campaign for the planned expansion of the center that by the time children turn 6, 95% of the neurotransmitter pathways in their brains, which are involved in “intelligence, emotional intelligence, everything we know and experience,” have already been created.

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“There is a real urgency to do this and, in some ways, I am very sorry that it has taken to 2022 to get this thing done,” Johnson said. “From the time a child is born until they’re 6 years old, think about what that child learns to do. They learn how to speak, how to crawl. They learn how to run, how to climb trees, to recognize emotions, to express emotions. They learn to understand reaction, appropriate reactions to triggers in their environment.

“We can’t start these interventions at 7. We can’t start at 6, because we’re already dealing with a stacked deck against these kids, who have these types of disorders and delays. We’re going to get more and more of these kids in at 2, or 3 at the latest. Research shows if they get two years of the type of treatment we provide, it makes huge differences in terms of how rich their lives are and how independently they can live as adults.”

TEACHING LIFE SKILLS

Kwan was born premature and underweight. He was diagnosed with autism when he was about 2 1/2 years old. Although he had feeding problems in his first year of life and his parents suspected there were underlying issues, they said it took their advocating for tests to be done to receive formal diagnoses of autism and a rare chromosome disorder.

He still has trouble eating, is very thin and uses a feeding tube.

Kwan’s parents said he loves coming to the Children’s Center at 1 Alden Ave., and has made great progress since he enrolled. He attends the autism program there on weekday mornings and the inclusive preschool program in the afternoons.

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Kwan Nash sorts letters Wednesday from a tray of soapy water and places them into a frame with teacher Diane Smith at the Children’s Center in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

He did not talk when he began going to the Children’s Center, but can now speak in short sentences. He has learned life skills and how to interact with his peers and teachers. He eats at least some food. He has also become close friends with two or three children there, something Kosal Nash said she was worried he might not do.

On a recent weekday, Kwan giggled and smiled broadly as he ran on the center’s playground, chasing one of his teachers and a little girl on a tricycle. He tagged both when he caught up to them, then ran away, still giggling. The playground is fully accessible to children with disabilities.

“He loves it here,” Kosal Nash said. “He loves the staff, and he talks about his friends and his teachers. And he loves the playground. He’s come a long way.”

Earlier in the day, Kwan worked in his classroom with teacher Diane Smith to pick the right letter from a tub and place it into its appropriate spot in a tray. He also used an iPad-like device that showed pictures of items and said what they were when he tapped them.

MAKING STRIDES 

Jon and Kosal Nash said their son has always been sharp, observant and aware of the world around him. He plays jokes on them, such as moving items in a room and then laughing as they try to find them. On weekends, he helps the couple, who own rental properties and flip houses.

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Jon and Kosal Nash during an interview last Wednesday at the Children’s Center at 1 Alden Ave. in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“His idea of fun is being with me and working. He’s right there with us,” Jon Nash said of Kwan. “I’ll say, ‘Get me the Philips screwdriver’ or a hammer, and he’ll go get it. We go to Home Depot and they love him there. He goes with me to mow lawns. And he loves heavy equipment.”

Kwan’s teachers send home progress reports detailing what he has done each day, which can include what he has eaten, his classroom activities and new skills on which he has worked. Kosal Nash said she has kept all of the updates.

“They give me hope. They show he’s progressing,” she said of the reports. “They literally show his progress every day. I don’t think (center staff members) realize how important that is to me.”

The couple, who have two older children, said they feel lucky the Children’s Center is in Augusta and they were able to get Kwan into its programs — after having to wait a few months. They said the next-closest facility that could have offered similar services was about 45 minutes away.

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Jon and Kosal Nash said they were moved by how the community helped raise $5 million to fund the center’s expansion, construction of which is expected to begin later this month. An existing building and garage on the site have already been cleared, and the contractor, Lajoie Bros Inc. of Augusta, which also built a previous addition at the center, has been at the site working.

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Chelsea Moeller, director of donor engagement and capital projects for the private, nonprofit Children’s Center, said the organization began raising funds in 2019. Although it has reached the initial $5 million target, the center is looking to raise another $200,000 to cover greater-than-anticipated construction costs. Donors can contribute by calling the center or going to the capital campaign’s website — www.achampionineverychild.org.

During a groundbreaking ceremony last Tuesday for the expansion, Gov. Janet Mills high-fived several children from the center’s programs as they held up signs reading, “We Are Champions.” Mills said she understood the importance of early childhood development, in part because she helped raise the five daughters of her late husband, and through them has five grandchildren, including one who is developmentally disabled.

Children who attend the Children’s Center in Augusta hold signs last Tuesday during a groundbreaking ceremony for the center’s expansion. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The governor said early intervention is especially important for young children with disabilities.

“That’s why the Children’s Center is so important,” Mills said at the site of the expansion, tucked between the existing campus and Worcester Street. “Because of the generosity of Maine people, the Children’s Center will double its capacity so more kids have the help they need.”

Major donors include the Harold Alfond Foundation, which has contributed $1 million, and the Shuman family’s Augusta-based automobile business, Charlie’s Family of Dealerships, which has contributed $1.2 million.

Donors praised Kaye and the late David Flanagan, longtime advocates for the center, for helping them discover the Children’s Center and its valuable work.

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EXPANSION ‘WILL MEAN EVERYTHING’

Johnson, the center’s executive director, said the waiting list for the facility has exceeded 200 children during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. About two weeks ago, he said, 178 children were waiting to get in. The wait times vary depending on which of the center’s programs children seek to enter, according to Moeller.

B.L. Lippert, a Cony High School teacher and football coach, said his now-8-year-old son, Lincoln, attended the Children’s Center after being diagnosed with autism at 3 years old. Lippert said those with whom he spoke recommended Lincoln attend the center for its beneficial programs.

While Lippert said his family only had to wait eight days for Lincoln to get in, that felt a long time to wait. He said Lincoln showed slow-but-steady progress, and is now in second grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Augusta.

Holding back tears, Lippert said the center’s expansion, expected to be completed in about a year, “will mean everything to those families” of children who need its services.

Moeller said on any given day, the center, between its classroom programs and outpatient services, might serve about 200 children. With the expansion, the growing outpatient services are to have dedicated space and their own entrance.

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