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Spokane Guilds’ School seeks new building to serve more children with disabilities

By Deidre Jacobson

With an increasing need for services for infants to three-year-old children with disabilities, Dick Boysen, director for 35 years of the Spokane Guilds’ School and Neuromuscular Center, is guiding a search for a new location. 

Guilds' School Director Dick Boysen and friends

Jessica and Hayden Johnston, Sara and Russel Winkler, and Alaina and Beau Stevenson surround The Guilds' School director, Dick Boysen.

Photo courtesy of The Guilds' School

The school serves 200 children and families at 2118 W. Garland Ave., where it has been housed since 1982 in a building owned by Spokane Public Schools and rented for one dollar a year through a state Referendum #37 project.

The Guilds’ School originated 52 years ago and was named to reflect that the founders were several women’s guilds.  None of the founders were mothers of children with special needs but rather were women who knew their efforts could make a difference for children and their parents. 

The group began providing respite, giving mothers a break from the care of their children.  The school was located for the first 22 years in the Cowley Youth building of Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, 411 S. Washington, and was staffed by volunteers. 

In the late 1960s, a federal law granted government money for children with disabilities, following the trend toward deinstitutionalization.  The common belief at that time was that disabled people learned differently.  Now it is understood that they learn more slowly, said Dick. 

Washington State’s early and strong focus on providing services to this group resulted in a 1971 state law requiring education for all children, followed in 1975 by a similar federal law.  The federal and state laws provided funds for the expanding Guilds’ School.

Dick began as director in 1977.

A father of three and grandfather of five, he was one of 13 children raised in a Catholic family in Southern California, growing up next door to a boy with Muscular Dystrophy.  This early neighborhood relationship and his faith experiences influenced his choices in his education and career.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at California State University Northridge, he came to Washington State University and earned master’s degrees in child development and adult and continuing education.

He moved to Spokane in 1975 to be educational director for Head Start in Spokane County, and came to the Guilds’ School two years later.  

Early on, I saw the need, primarily in the struggle of the parents.  I knew we could make a difference,” said Dick.

The Guilds’ School now serves nine school districts in the county.  Five districts provide services for their children.  The Spokane Regional Health District is the lead agency for assessing the needs of young children with disabilities and assigning services to meet those needs.  

Various children’s providers, including people from the Guilds’ School, meet each month to assess new referrals.  Based on family resources and severity of need, the most severe situations are often referred to the Guilds’ School.

Each child begins at Guilds’ School with an individual family service plan designed to fit the needs of the child and family.  Medical director Rob Piston, M.D., reviews the medical information and does a complete examination of the child.  A pediatric nurse and social worker make a home assessment.  The special education teacher, physical therapist, occupational therapist and speech/language pathologist then do an arena assessment, which evaluates various aspects of a child’s development.  

They determine the child’s developmental age and diagnose what syndrome may account for that age.  Then they design a plan of intervention. 

Many staff have been on board for 20 to 30 years, bringing experience needed for an accurate, thorough assessment and an intervention plan.  The children receive from two- to seven-and-a-half hours of service each week.

Federal law determines how long children stay in the program—birth until their third birthday.  Then children are the responsibility of local school districts.  About 15 percent of Guilds’ School’s children are able to leave before that time because they have achieved age appropriate skills.  Transition meetings begin six months before the transfer occurs. 

Teaching the family to help their baby with therapeutic work can begin immediately, in the home or at the Guilds’ School.  After age two, the child may be in a group setting, where the child-to-teacher/therapist ratio is no more than two-to-one.

When the child leaves the Guilds’ School, Dick sends a letter to the family, letting them know they can call staff if they have a question, crisis or need advice or direction.  Staff will provide information, support or referrals to community services.”

He stays connected to the day-to-day operation of the school. 

“I go Wednesdays to the neuromuscular staff meeting and see the difficult situations the families are in,” he said.  “Sometimes I wonder, ‘What are we going to do for her?’  The staff is optimistic, well-trained and clever.  We work with some of the most difficult situations, yet we see miracles every day.  Seventy-five percent of our children are Medicaid eligible, some coming from troubled situations.  We work closely with other service providers.”

The school also seeks to educate the community on the importance of the birth to three-year-old age range and the science of early intervention and the importance of stimulation.  The most crucial time for brain development is birth to three years. 

Because only 65 percent of funding comes from government sources, the Guilds’ School must secure 35 percent from private sources to run the school. 

The “Kids for Kids” Penny Drive is the school’s well-known community event, this year celebrating its 15th anniversary, and raising more than $177,000 a year. 

Volunteers, board members and 65 schools in the county support the event. A Guilds’ School parent brings his or her child to each school and explains at an assembly about disabilities and their child’s unique needs.  The children take the money jugs and begin collecting.  At the end of this year’s event, eight tons of coins were counted in eight hours in the school gym.

Faris Charbonneau, a past educator and Guilds’ School board member, began the “Kids for Kids” Penny Drive.  She wanted to educate the community and empower young people to realize that they could change the world for others, even if it meant picking up a penny in a parking lot. 

Children hearing the message about disabilities are inquisitive, asking question adults might be thinking, Dick said.

“The children teach us and lead us to a better community and a better world,” he said.

The “Kids for Kids” program teaches acceptance of disabilities and diversity.  It teaches about sharing, giving and caring about others. 

Ed Charbonneau developed a counting and sorting system which sorts an average of eight tons of coins annually.  Each year, Darigold Dairy provides the jugs for the collection.

Funding issues are a concern

“It is harder.  Money is so tight.  We are highly regulated because 65 percent of the budget comes from seven government sources,” said Dick.  “I see that directors of nonprofits are overwhelmed.  We need better policies in government to help the young families.  Isolated nuclear families are a big problem, stressed out people taking care of small children.”

This past year, Northwest Architecture Company and Bouten Construction Company have helped the school complete a pre-design study.  The challenge is to secure a site for the new facility.

“Where we build is critical to the future of the organization and how the program can assist the community,” he said. “The desired location is in the heart of the University District east of downtown Spokane, a central and accessible location.  It puts us in the center of training the students in higher education, special education, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language pathology, nursing, social work and medical students and providing interns for the Guilds’ School.  The University District location also puts us in the middle of the research effort that will go on in the coming years.”

Board chair Chris Olney said, “At one time, we were able to serve more than 90 percent of the children needing our help.  Today, because of growing demand, a fixed budget and lack of space, we are only able to serve 30 percent. 

The board hopes the new facility will double the number of children they can help each year.

Dick sees something powerful happening at the school. 

“While faith practices of staff are a private matter, we observe God’s hand on our work,” he said.  “We are grateful to people who care and help.  Spokane does love its children and is helping to “Keep The Dream Alive.” 

For information, call 326-1651, email or visit