March 19, 2009 in Washington Voices

Community of compassion

Guilds’ School helps families and their children grow, learn
By The Spokesman-Review
Photos by JESSE TINSLEY photo

Teachers aide Lois Robertson, right, laughs with Daymien Reno-Kane about his drawing in a classroom at the Spokane Guilds’ School and Neuromuscular Center. The Guilds’ School serves children with developmental disabilities up to age 3.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)


See a video slideshow about Spokane Guilds’ School and Neuromuscuar Center on the Web at video/2009/mar/12/ spokane-guilds-school/

More information

For more information about Spokane Guilds’ School and Neuromuscular Center, go to or call (509) 326-1651.

It looked like any other preschool classroom. Colorful toys and puzzles lay within easy reach, and the sound of happy giggles filled the room. A group of children gathered around their teacher for story time. But a closer look revealed that this is a unique classroom.

A small girl pushed her doll in a miniature wheelchair, a toddler with thick, blue-framed glasses struggled to walk up a slide, and fingers flew as several kids expressed themselves using sign language. This classroom is in the Spokane Guilds’ School and Neuromuscular Center in north Spokane. “It all looks like play, but they are working hard,” said program coordinator Marilyn Henderson.

Founded in 1960 by a group of women’s service clubs, the school operates as an assessment and treatment center for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities. Part of the uniqueness of the school is the dedication of the staff; four of them have worked there 30 years. This staff offers support, education and hope at a crucial time for families.

Families like the Engs. When Maren Eng delivered twins Molly and Micah six weeks early, the family quickly realized that Molly would need special care. “She had holes in her heart and had feeding issues,” Eng recalled. The hospital staff referred the family to the Guilds’ School. “When you have a medically fragile child, it can be so isolating,” said Eng. She was amazed when staff members from the Guilds’ School came to her home to assess Molly’s needs. “They provided a new community for us,” she said.

Nurse coordinator Karen Elmendorf said out of the 140 children currently enrolled, about one-third receive home-based services because they are too ill or medically fragile to come to the school.

For Maren Eng this personalized, compassionate care made a huge difference. Molly is almost 3, and while she still has a feeding tube, she’s making great strides in the weaning process. Eng said, “She’s doing wonderfully.”

Early intervention is crucial when dealing with all types of developmental disabilities. Children are assessed by medical professionals and given an individualized family service plan. The staff works in teams composed of a special education teacher and physical, occupational and speech therapists.

“Everybody is so calm and supportive,” said Heather Notske. Her daughter, Julia, was diagnosed with Pierre-Robin Sequence shortly after birth. This congenital condition is characterized by an underdeveloped lower jaw and a cleft palate, resulting in breathing and eating issues. For parents dealing with unexpected trauma, the staff at the Guilds’ School can be a lifeline. “Everything is so matter of fact,” said Notske. “They don’t think Julia is a freak or weird.”

Notske’s experience mirrors the philosophy of Elmendorf. She said the families have already heard about what their child cannot do, but the staff at the school focuses on what their child can do.

Juila and Molly are just two examples of success stories here. But a visit to the school shows many other stories in the making. On a recent afternoon in the 2- and 3-year-old classroom, Riley sat in a highchair and enjoyed a lollipop with the encouragement of his speech pathologist. For most kids eating a sucker would simply be a welcome treat, but Riley has delayed speech. He mimicked the pathologist, sticking out his tongue and taking exaggerated licks at his treat. These exercises are helping him learn to formulate sounds. Later, in front of a computer he growled when the picture of a bear appeared.

Ella Bode, 2  1/2 , sat with a group of friends in front of another computer screen. “We moved from Texas to be here because of the Guilds’ School,” said her mom, Kacey Bode. “She had a lot of catching up to do with speech.”

The move has been worth it for the Bode family. “She’s really come alive,” said Bode, who went on to explain Ella’s love for the Guilds’ School. When it’s time to go home, Ella lets everyone know how she feels about saying goodbye. “She screams,” Kacey said. “She doesn’t want to leave!”

Kathaleen Cassels has seen her daughter make amazing progress as well. Gabby, 2  1/2 , has a rare genetic condition called Williams Syndrome. Cassels said her daughter came to the school unable to sit up on her own, not walking or talking and not eating solid food. That was more than a year ago. “Now, she’s walking, running, jumping, climbing and eating pancakes and waffles,” Cassels said, laughing. She added that the support system she found at the Guilds’ School has been invaluable to her. “They’re therapists, for me!” she said.

The good news is 15 to 20 percent of kids who graduate from the school will be “fixed,” according to Elmendorf. But the bad news is there are far more children who need services than the Guilds’ School is able to help.

“We can only serve 40 percent of the eligible kids in this county,” said executive director Dick Boysen. “The need went way up, but the funding didn’t.”

While much of the funding is provided through the state of Washington, the Guilds’ School must raise one-third of its support through private donations.

One of the most visible fundraisers the school conducts is the Kids for Kids Penny Drive, an event that kicks off in the fall and culminates April 25 on the school’s Community Day. Containers for coins are placed in 60 schools throughout the Spokane area, as well as in local businesses. On April 25 the containers will be collected at sites throughout the city and then taken to the school, where volunteers sort them. Boysen said, “Last year volunteers sorted 9 tons of coins in our gym.”

And after 30 years of working with these kids, Boysen’s eyes still fill with tears when he talks about them. “There’s great hope for these children,” he said.

Heather Notske agreed. “We didn’t ask for or anticipate having a child with special needs,” she said, and her voice grew thick with emotion. “But we feel like we’ve been given a gift for reason. Julia made us rethink what’s really important.”

Contact correspondent Cindy Hval at

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email