When Rick Bonfiglio was a college freshman, his parents told him he had to find a job.
So he went to a job fair, and recalls, “I convinced a woman to give me a paid internship.” That was 17 years ago. The woman at the job fair was from May Institute. And Rick is now a lead classroom instructor at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass.

Asked to describe one of his students, Rick beams. “Hannah is very funny, very energetic. She loves music and to laugh and dance to electronic dance music. She sings a lot, just a super bubbly, happy 6-year-old kid. Sometimes she’ll burst into the room in the morning and say hi to everybody. Hannah really engages with our staff. She’s quite a pleasure to have in the classroom. And she loves graham crackers.” Rick lights up as he talks about Hannah.

“As a parent, that brings tears to my eyes!” quietly exclaims Hannah’s mother, Sarah. “Because what you want — especially when you have a child with special needs — is for other people to care for her and want her to succeed as much as you do. And that is our sense, even after only a few months at the May. They seem like such a compassionate, caring group of people.

“You know, it’s not easy to leave your child with essentially complete strangers for six hours a day. Hannah has very limited verbal abilities, so she can’t really tell me what happened over the course of the day… that requires a lot of trust from our end. And I can tell you that we have been able to give that trust pretty easily just based on the people we’ve met at the May.

“Hannah has struggled with communication her entire life. As parents, we’ve worked really hard to try to figure out the best ways to support her learning and to teach her. We tried many different things over the years. It wasn’t until she started at the May School that we’ve really felt comfortable with what Hannah is being provided: a concentrated, intensive therapeutic environment over many hours each day. She has really responded to that.

“Hannah has made huge gains in some areas of communication and self-help. For example, when she went to preschool at our public school last year, she refused to wear her shoes. And she doesn’t wear socks either. So she literally went barefoot the entire year — which was not good.

“When she started at the May she was taking her shoes off more than 100 times a day! Which means that some poor teacher had to put both of her shoes back on over 100 times in the course of a day — only to have her kick them right off again. And now?

“Hannah wears her shoes at school — all day long. She wears her shoes when we go grocery shopping. She wears her shoes pretty much everywhere. And now she even wants to wear them at home!

“She’s also begun communicating a lot differently. Before, we’d hear a word, or an approximation of a word, every now and then. But it wasn’t consistent. Now she opens her mouth and something’s coming out every time she wants something. Which is fantastic — and, we hope, the building blocks of language.

“There’s so much about Hannah that we love! She was in a hurry and arrived three months prematurely. She weighed two pounds and had to fight for her first two-and-a-half months in the hospital. But against all the odds, she has really done quite well and has grown into a wonderful little girl.

“We’ve realized that optimism is the only way to approach things when you’re raising a child.”

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