Podcast: Kim Blasiak, advocating for students with special needs

Kim Blasiak

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
Kim Blasiak is passionate about advocating for students with special needs, starting with her son but extending to help other parents. She founded a Special Education PTA for the Guilderland schools where parents and teachers are working together.



00:00                                         Hello, this is Melissa, Hale-Spencer, the editor of The Altamont Enterprise and I'm here today with Kim Blasiak and I heard about Kim Kimberly, right? Kim from Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Guilderland reporter who covers the Guilderland schools and since Kim is an almost every school board meeting and she's always advocating for special needs kids, she even founded a pta for the parents of those children. So welcome Kim. Thank you very much. I just like to start with a little about who you are, who your family is, and how you got interested in special needs students.

00:42                                         Okay. Well, um, first of all, my son Alex was diagnosed autism asd when he was two years old. So this is something where, I mean we have four children. How does that look? Alex is 11. He's in sixth grade. So it's something that after awhile, like when you first start in your child's first diagnosed, you're just kind of thrown into the deep end where you sink or swim and you have to figure out how you're going to advocate for your child, how you're going to get services. It's very overwhelming. And over the years you, you get used to what you're supposed to do and how things go, what the laws are, what's required, and you get a little bit better at advocating and then I feel it's your job to kind of help other parents that are just coming into it. So that's really how I got started. At least advocating for special education.

01:35                                         So age too. That was an early diagnosis. How did that come about and isn't that good that it did? Because I understand the earlier, the better.

01:43                                         Absolutely. Autism spectrum. Yeah. We actually, we saw things from age one to two and it was just something where it was still too young and the doctor would say, oh, just slit it, go let it go. Then when my son turned two, we really at his two year old physical, we said, all right, there's something here. We know something's going on. And the doctor looked and took about five minutes arch. And we were very lucky because we lived in Syracuse at the time. The weight was around 18 months to get in with the doctor who has the diagnosis, who gives a diagnosis. So excuse me, we put out feelers in every city that we knew, people, friends, family, everything that we could get out. So we were able to get into the center for Autism and Philadelphia the soonest and we got his diagnosis and just kind of moved right from there.

02:33                                         Whereas Alex, you have four children, four children and I'm in the line. He is second out of four. So you were already an experienced mother, at least you had a sense of what the, the, the regular posts are for progress. Yes, and I was very active with my sister and her kids, so I had that. I had that experience behind me already. So especially with boys I knew from my nephew. Well at age one, this is usually typical and it doesn't follow textbook all the time, but there were certain things that we saw that were just clearly different. And this must be something that impacts and affects your entire family. The other children as well. Yes it does. And it's. I mean, there we have to say when Alex was diagnosed, the one thing that we said immediately was Alex is not going to be the center of this family.

03:27                                         It has to be like we had at the time we had my daughter and then Alex, just the two and we didn't want it to be just all about Alex all the time. It had to be something where, yes, of course that's going to be different. We were, we had different concerns. We were going to have to spend more time with him with certain things, but it's not always about him. And now that we have for it, it's, we've had our struggles through the years to say the least 10 family with four children. Nevermind the autism. Yes, yes, yes. But wonderful. So when did you move to Guilderland? We moved here in July of 2015. Okay. So three years ago, Alex was how he was. Oh my goodness. He was going into fourth grade, so he was eight going on nine maybe, or you'd think I would know them offhand, but yes, he was going into fourth grade.

04:25                                         And so which elementary school did he. Oh, he goes to. He went to Pine Bush. Yes. That's a beautiful school. I think I love the little footsteps on the pathways. Find your way because if you come to the school and you're not used to it is. Yes. But tell us when you got to Guilderland how, how you kind of found your way as an advocate for a child with autism. I mean, well it was, I mean, before we even came, because my husband had lived here for years before we even moved here, so we were familiar with Guilderland. We liked guilderland. Um, I actually, I believe his name was Steven Hatton who was the director of Special Ed and then he retired justice. We were coming in the heat. I heard great stories, but I would call him almost every year because I would think we are moving in. I'm like, we're coming.

05:15                                         We're definitely coming. So get ready for Alex. and then when we finally had the offer on the house, everything was set and I called him. He goes, I'm so excited, but I'm retiring. So we, we then spoke with Lisa Knowles and we included her in our last cse meeting in our old district so she could hear from everyone. We brought all of our reports because they did their try annual review and we just kind of jumped right in. It wasn't. The advocacy has kind of taken a little bit of time to kind of get our, our, our feeding or I'm stumbling over my words but just kind of get our. But when it came to like getting Alex would he needed. I guess that's something that I learned early on. It wasn't a can we get him what he needs? It was a okay, they're going to do it.

06:09                                         And I. and I've been very lucky, I have to say I haven't really had any issues. So they've been, I mean Guilderland, at least in my experience has been great. We've been very lucky. We've worked with some great people. They've been very receptive. They genuinely. It's nice when you send your child somewhere and they genuinely like your, your child, like they, they really enjoy seeing your child. Now we killed. Has a decades long reputation for special ed and being kind of in the forefront, but if you could just kind of unpack until we get into the specifics. I'm sure dealing with the PTA in case we have listeners that might be new to being a parent of a special needs child, what advice can you give on becoming an advocate? You know, putting yourself forward on behalf of your child. Because I think that's hard for some people.

07:02                                         It's very hard because I do work with a lot of parents. I talked to a lot of parents. I mean we're all in the same boat. We're on the same team. So where there's the fear of, well these people work with our child everyday so we don't want to rock the boat. We don't want to do anything and it's not an US versus them. It's so what can we all do together that would be in the best interest of our children? And I tell people, I'm like, never feel guilty for sticking up for your child. Never worry about the repercussions for sticking up for your child because that's all you're doing is sticking up for your child. You're fighting a fight that you were, you were put into it is what it is and it doesn't make it any easier because there are times where I even kind of fumble a little bit and I take that extra step back, but I would just want people to know that you really, even if someone doesn't feel that they're an advocate, just think of just think of your child in school during the day without you and not if they are, don't have the capability.

08:07                                         Not being able to voice if something's wrong or if something is too much or too little and just think that you need to have that voice to move forward. And if anyone needs help, reach out to another parent. I mean that's one thing that we tell people buddy up with someone. If you are going to a CSE meeting, take a friend because sometimes you're so in the moment and ready to talk about things and you might forget something. So if you talk about it with someone before, then you have someone to bounce off issues or someone that understands. So twice you've mentioned the CSE meetings. Just tell us a little about how that functioned. Who's there sitting around the table, what, what's the, um, not just the format but the process with that. Okay. Well, the CSE, the committee on Special Education, they also have the CPSC, the committee on Preschool, special education and they also have a 504 committee.

09:01                                         So with any of the committees, if you're already in the system, it's something where you meet yearly, although you can meet as much as you need to so parents can always request a meeting. Um, but it's something where usually your child's providers are there, your child's teachers and anyone who can help and who works with your child or knows your child. You can also have an advocate. Um, I know Guilderland also has parent advocates. You have to give them 72 hours in advance to have someone there, but you just, you essentially sit around a table. Then you just go through, okay, this is where my child really needs help. This is where they're struggling, this is where they. They need a little bit more work and the one thing like for a parent that's coming into it for the first time, I would tell them ahead of time because I had someone telling me at our first ever meeting when we come in, we know your child is amazing, but they're going to bring out the negatives so we can give them the help to get to the positives because it gets very hard when you're a parent and you're hearing will my child is having a hard time with this or my child can't do this.

10:13                                         It. It gets emotionally draining and I also suggest to parents to bring a picture of your child because you want people to remember. I mean during we, I call it CSC season, during CSC season, people are. It's not that they don't like your child or anything, but everyone is so overworked going from meeting to meeting. So just to bring a picture of your child so they see, hey, this is a kid. Yes, this is a real yes, this is who we're here for. That's a nice idea. Yeah. So what led you to the idea of putting together a pta had, how did that call? Um, well I'm very active in Pta to begin with. So for me it was just, it was something that when I first came here I wanted to start, but it was, it was not a good time. And then as I kind of went on because I, I never really met a lot of special needs parents and then I started to meet more parents and it was just, it was nice to meet people in the same boat, but we all said the same thing, well we don't really have someone to talk to her.

11:15                                         We didn't know this or we didn't know that. And so then it just kind of evolved to where it was like, all right, you know what, we need to have a place where we can have all of us come together and not just the parents but the teachers and the administrators because we do have to work as a team and we can all be in the same room and we can all learn something. We can all share information, we can just kind of break it down. And then it just became something where we were very adamant about doing it. We started as a subcommittee of the Guilderland Council Pta and then we chartered after three meetings because there's a process or the state that you have to go through just described that charter, the charter process, you usually have to have an initial meeting just to get people interested just to see if there is interest.

12:05                                         Which that first meeting people were like, okay, let's sign. Let's, let's do this today. I'm like, no, no, no. There is a process. So then you have to put it out 30 days ahead of time. You have to come up with your bylaws, which are very typical bylaws or New York state PTA. It's just kind of a plug and play form where you fill out certain things, but it's all the same because we, we, our PTA is a five o, one c, three nonprofit, so you have to follow through. Then you have someone from state come in, speak to you, which kind of worked in our favor because I'm on the state board for PTA, so I was able to do that. I talked with some people at state, they're like, if you're comfortable with that. So I was very comfortable. So it was me. Um, so I spoke to everyone and then you also need 25 members, which we had no problem getting because to be honest, we had full rooms.

12:56                                         So meetings, these parents coming from all the different five elementary schools. Not only parents, but teachers to the elementary level. Only note we take age. We go essentially with the special needs ages where they say three to 21. So if someone at the preschool level is interested in, wants to join, they're more than welcome. If they even if they don't want to join and they just want to come for information, we're fine with that too. But right across. I mean we've had people from all of the schools in Guilderland as great, so it draws from the entire district, both parents and teachers and I know you said the bylaws are fairly set, but you have your own sort of mission statement or you know, sense of your goals that set you apart from kind of the regular education PTA. Well that's something that, to be honest, we were so gung ho on starting that we kind of got ahead of ourselves on a couple of things.

13:57                                         So that was one of them were right now this year we've kind of taken that step back and we have like I have a co president make mccomsey and she is creating a website for us which is amazing. And can you just give us that address in case someone's listening and. Well it's not fully up and running yet, so it's just something where we've been going. I'm next year. Our plan is next year. We have already talked to a lot of organizations around the capital region. We are going to reach out to the teachers again because we did ask the teachers also, we did meet with the teachers union and we asked what is something that you would like us to bring in for training or just to learn more about. So executive functioning was a huge one. So we brought someone in to talk about executive functioning in March, tell, tell me what that is.

14:48                                         Um, that is pretty much. And I, of course that's the one meeting wasn't attending, but that's something where kids have a hard time just getting something from their head down into paper. So they have the thought in their head but they don't exactly know where to start or they have organizational issues. Just, it's, it's pretty much just getting themselves in their brain organized. So as a pta you were able to bring someone in for professional development for the teachers to learn about. It was just, we were able to bring in a speaker, not like official professional development, but something where they understood it because a lot of the teachers had said, okay, we get and they do, they get so much training, but at the same time they, they could use more, they could always use more and so it was something where it just gave them a feel like, okay, this is something that could help in the classroom maybe, or this is maybe how a kid feels or it just gave them that little bit more information.

15:43                                         Well that's great. So that's one very concrete thing. Can you tell us some of the other things that you've done as a PTA group? Either with the teachers, for the teachers, for the parents themselves or student short? Um, in August actually last August, and I think we're probably gonna do the same thing this year. We held a guilderland steps, a community picnic in central park and it wasn't just special needs students and their families that was open to anyone in Guilderland. And we were, it was very well received. We had quite a few people, we rented one of the pavilions and we just, we had everyone just kind of come together, meet each other, talk. We had pizza, drinks, snacks, coffee because it was freezing for some reason we had, yeah, we had a lot of activities, um, but it was just, it was nice for everyone just to get together and just meet other people because sometimes you're, you're, I don't want to say sheltered, but you're in your school and you may see another parent and you may not.

16:46                                         And it was nice to reach out to other parents and say, okay, your child is struggling with this, this is the same thing as my child or what worked for you. Um, so that was kind of a good thing. Oh, absolutely. So that's great to meet people outside of their own school. Yes. So beautiful. Every. Yeah, it was, it was very nice. It was going to become an annual event. We've been talking about it. Yeah, I think it is. I think we might try to make that an annual event. So it was definitely, we were very happy with the response and we just need to kind of, we're, we're thinking maybe making it a little bigger every year and then maybe adding, seeing if the teacher's union wants to join us and just kind of making it a full community event. So when, when were you officially founded?

17:33                                         On May 20, fifth, 2017. Wow. So you've done a lot in just a very short amount of time and this has been one of those years where it's one of those learning years where we're just getting our footing. Um, we're figuring things out. We are kind of coming back and making plans where next year we're going to be fully up and running. I mean we even offer if people need it, we do offer someone to come and help you during cse meetings or just to even talk about issues. So we'd like to, we'd like to create maybe a database that's something we've talked about where they're just in, it would have to be just member locked and and things, but where people could have their names and numbers like okay, for example, Kim Blacey at her son has autism. She's willing to talk to another parent whose child was diagnosed with autism or who has questions just to kind of meet up and pair people off if they need help.

18:28                                         Nice. Because I imagine there are times when you could feel very much alone and like you were struggling kind of without support and even if you have a good school, there just must be social issues that come here as. Because there are an. I say to people, I know both sides of it, so when will I have. And people can't see my air quotes, but the Gen ed children who were in just the regular classes fully. But then I have my son who is in Gen ed, but he has special needs and he has all of his supports in his iap and his one and one ta. And I can see both sides of it, like if, if something's going on in the class, I want him to get what he needs, but at the same time I don't want other kids to not get what they need because my child might be doing something and it's.

19:21                                         It's a hard, it's a hard mix. But the inclusion seems to be working. I mean Gilbert was moving more and more in that direction. Is it something you think is basically a good direction? I was, to be honest, and I've said this to that, I've said this to the district before. I was actually very surprised at how behind Guilderland was when we got here, because we did come from a district that was fully inclusive. This was, yes, it was Baldwinsville New York, and so it didn't even occur to me in this day and age that there would be a district that wasn't. So it was very, very surprising because usually people were very surprised when we moved here, when I met a few parents whose children had autism and they said, Oh, is your child going to Linwood or ultimate? I said, Pine Bush will. No, no, no, no. He has autism, right?

20:11                                         I'm like, yeah, well he gets services, right? I said, yeah, so is he going to Lynnwood or Ultima? And I'm like Pine Bush. Because those schools were. Yes, those were the schools. So it was, it was just very different for me. I mean they're, yes, they're going into the right direction, which is great. I give them massive credit for that, but it's, it's still a work in progress, but they are, they're doing it because. So are you aware, are there other pts like this? And I've never heard of one. Oh yes. No, there are other. I'm actually New York state PTA is, has been chartering quite a few sepsis lately and there's one in south colony that's, I actually talked to that president quite a bit. That's very active. There's one whereas that in Salem, um, there's one in. Pardon me, because I'm still, I don't know all the names, but why is it, why and skill?

21:05                                         Wind, wind skill. They have a great one that just chartered last year, but they are around and it's something where it's not totally separate like it's a community thing and they support their community with the other two school districts. We cover our burden on Westworld, Lawrenceville, and it's new to me because it hasn't been one of those districts. Could you just kind of, and I know you can't put a whole year's worth of work and do the amount of time we have left, which isn't a lot, but just some advice. If someone wants to start something like this, where do they begin and how, what are the, what's the process? Well, the first thing you need to do is at least get some interest. So you need to start reaching out to your community, into your parents and just saying, look, this is something that we're thinking about doing.

21:52                                         What do you think? Because you want to get support. You don't want to be the one parent that's ready to do it because a problem is, and we do still run into this. Um, we've actually had some board of Ed members that have attended our meetings last year and we kind of showed them by raising hands that, okay, this is great that everyone's talking here, but who still afraid to speak up sometimes because of retaliation and every hand in the room just about every hand went up. So there really isn't retaliation. It's, it's honest and it's a true fear. It's a parental fear that if you speak up or if you rock the boat or say something, you're going to step on the wrong toes to where these are people who are working with your children all day. So you're afraid a lot of parents are afraid.

22:41                                         Well they're going to take it out of my child. It's going to be. And that doesn't really happen, but it isn't. It's a genuine fear because it took me, comes in reality. Yes, it did take me a while to get over that too. And part of me getting over that fear was really knowing the laws really knowing. Like when the district will send you that, they'll send you usually a packet or you can get one on what the laws are and what you're entitled to read it. Definitely read it. Cover to cover, read anything you can get and your background. That's the funny part. I actually have my degree from Syracuse University in supply chain management, so completely different. I actually wanted to be a US customs broker and then I went back to school later in life and went back, had a child, took a break, went back, had a child, took a break, then went back and graduated and then every time I wanted to go back to work I would have.

23:44                                         Well first of all my son was diagnosed so I stayed home for a while and then I would have a child and then I got involved in Pta and it was something where when people think pta, they think, okay, they're doing the book fairs and they're doing. Yes, and that's a little, a very small part of what PTA does. PTA has such a strong state and national voice where we're a genuine grassroots advocacy organization where our mission is we advocate for every child and that's something that I really stand firm on. It's not just about my children, it's about every child, every district, like equitable funding across the board, everything and just that true deep belief of that organization. That's what really drives me and that's where my passion kind of came out because then I see, okay, I'm really engaged in my children's education. I know what's going on with the district. I know what's going on at the state level. Even mean we go as a New York state PTA in February, we have a legit advocacy day where we go up and we talk to our elected officials and we say, these are our concerns for education, and it's. It was the best day. It was just the best day because you hear all of these stories, but you're really doing this for every single child that walks out and goes into a school building.

25:13                                         You speak with such commitment that I had goosebumps. Oh, this is wonderful. So I got you. Off the track, a little shocking about the process of setting this up and you know, it was a fascinating I this idea that parents have a fear that if they speak up that there will be retaliation against their child. Does having the PTA itself help calm that fear? In other words because they're then working kind of shoulder to shoulder with teachers and. Yes, because I think

25:46                                         in a way it also allows people to see that we're kind of all in the same boat like teachers and parents and just before we go on. Also, I'm not saying that Guilderland like does that they don't. It's just anywhere you go with special needs parents. That's just something that that's part of it. Yes. So it's interesting. It's just something where you're always worrying like, okay, and then there are people like me were after a while. It doesn't even affect my day to day. I don't even think about it because I go in, I'm very fair. I don't ask for things that my son doesn't need and I genuinely want to work in partnership. So. And I tell other parents said, I'm like, go in and know what your child needs. Have conversations with his teachers. It's in my son's IEP for example. We have daily communication put in.

26:35                                         There were some individualized education. Yes. No, and thank you. Do you have a conversation? Yes. Which it's not always, but it's just something in there where. So it's hard for you to have a conversation? Well, no, that's for me to talk to his teacher. No, because if I, if he comes home and this is a lot of kids, it's not just like my son, but kids in general. How did school go? Fine. What happened today? I don't know. So it's nice that I have that because if something goes on at school, the teacher can email me and say, hey, you know what this happened. Is something going on? Or if something is going on, I can send a quick email and say, oh my gosh, bad morning heads up. Just so you're aware, when he gets in, like we just have that back and forth because it's not my job to send my child to school and say, well this is on you.

27:21                                         Just like it's not their job to send my child home and say, well yet good luck with everything. You figure it all out. I mean it has to be a partnership. Constant communication technology helped with that. I know there's on schools where teachers will even like in parts of their classroom and send it home and technology has been great because we will, we can text, we can email if we need something filmed. There are times where, and I, I love this, where the teachers will have their phones in class and let's take a picture or a video of him doing something really cool and they'll shoot it off to me. So it's, it's been great, but it's not abused either. It's not something where we just have frivolous conversations. It's something where we genuinely were working together for things. We're trying to find solutions together.

28:10                                         So do you have any parting thoughts for our listeners? Yes. First of all, never. I tell everyone, never fear about being an advocate. You don't have to. You could be a very quiet, reserved, shy person and still be an advocate. The only thing you're doing is you are supporting your child. Never worry about what other people are thinking because it's not personal. It's not your feelings towards your, your children's teachers and providers, everyone who works with your child. It's not personal. This is something where you're going in just like they would for their children and you're trying to get them what they genuinely need to get the best education that they deserve. Excellent. Thank you so much, Kim. Thank you.


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