Editor’s note: Easy-going. Compassionate. Strong-willed. Adventurous. Helpful. Sensitive. One or more of these words may describe you. They also describe people with developmental disabilities. October is Community Awareness Month and the Shelby County Board of Developmental Disabilities encourages everyone to get to know someone with a disability and ask “What’s Your Story?” Each one of us has a story and each story has the potential to educate and inspire others. “We invite you to enjoy a series of articles highlighting several families involved in our program who would like to share their story with you. Their stories are powerful, meaning, and inspiring,” said Superintendent Laura Zureich.
SIDNEY — For Doug and Janet Billenstein, of Sidney, their son, Mike, 4, was an answer to their prayers.
“We were praying about adding to our family and found out about Mike in the summer of 2013,” said Doug Billenstein. “We saw this as an answer to our prayer. We adopted Mike when he was 2 years old.”
Mike was premature and his parents weren’t able to care for him, said Billenstein. Mike went from the hospital to foster care.
The couple knew Mike had developmental delays and could possibly be autistic when they made the decision to become his foster parents, and later, adopt him. His adoption was finalized in February 2014.
Mike attended the early intervention (formerly Wee School) program at Shelby Hills when the couple first became his foster parents. He is currently attending preschool at Shelby Hills.
“When we adopted him, he was not walking. He was not talking. At first, he didn’t realize we were there,” said Billenstein. “He exhibited signs of autism such as spinning and licking.”
The Billenstein family also includes two daughters, Abby and Sadie.
“The girls did very well when Mike joined the family. They’ve adjusted very well. The biggest adjustment was for Janet and I,” he said.
“Janet works for Anthony Wayne in Darke County so she’s worked with children like Mike before,” he said. “I was totally unprepared.”
At the time the Billensteins learned about Mike, the toddler was enrolled in the Help Me Grow program in Darke County. Once he became part of their family, he was assessed by Shelby Hills and enrolled in their early intervention program.
“At this point, we were beginning to realize how helpless and overwhelmed we were to meet Mike’s needs,” said Billenstein. “The (Shelby Hills) teachers and staff were very helpful and encouraging to us. Not only did they work with Mike, but they helped to teach and instruct us in knowing how to work with Mike’s behaviors.
“We always left Wee School feeling very empowered,” he said.
When Mike was enrolled in the early intervention program, the children attend school at Shelby Hills for two weeks. Then they are home for two weeks in their natural environment. A physical therapist, occupational therapist and speech therapist would visit their home twice a week during the two week period. His teacher also visited the home.
“The teacher was there for us as well as being a teacher for Mike,” said Billenstein.
After his adoption was finalized, the couple realized they still needed help with Mike’s disabilities. Shelby Hills referred the family to Karen Simpson, a PLAY Project coordinator in Champaign County.
“PLAY Project is geared specifically toward autistic youth,” said Billenstein. “Karen comes to our home two times each month for 1 1/2 hours and gives us specialized instruction to teach us how to help Mike with his communication and social skills. The PLAY Program is free in Ohio. She has been a major source of support, instruction, advice and encouragement.”
Because he has problems communicating, Mike is being taught sign language.
“His main word is ‘eat’,” said Billenstein. “He has about 20 signs now and his communication keeps increasing. His relationship skills are also better and he now makes eye contact with people.
“If we call his name, he will stop and look at us,” he continued “Mike understands a lot and his communication is growing.”
Mike’s family is also learning how to sign.
“Janet learned in college,” said Billenstein. “I’m a hands on learner so sign language makes sense to me.”
This is Mike’s second year in the preschool program.
“We are amazed by the excellent service provided at the school,” said Billenstein. “At our first parent/teacher conference we were blown away at all the progress Mike had made in that short amount of time. His teachers, helpers and therapists have been exemplary.
“Janet and I know our decision to adopt Mike was following part of God’s plan for our marriage,” he said. “But is has been the most difficult experience we have been though as a couple and has brought out things in us we didn’t realized were there. Shelby Hills and the staff and Karen Simpson, with the PLAY Project have been a huge answer to our prayers and we can’t imagine where we would be now without them.
“We are grateful for them and can’t even begin to express in words how much they mean to us and have helped us,” he continued. “We still have daily struggles, as with any child, but we trust God will continue to lead and provide in all that is needed.”
Billenstein said he and his wife are also thankful for the Parents Night Out which is held once a month during the school year.
“Parents Night Out, Teen Night Out and Friday Night Out are programs offered by Shelby County Arc,” said Kendra Hamaker, Shelby County Arc executive director.
“Parents Night Out is a fun, free program for children with developmental disabilities and their siblings, all under the age of 12. Held once a month, September through April, each evening offers a meal and supervised activities for the children and gives parents and caregivers four hours of free time,” she said.
For the Billensteins, Shelby Hills is a blessing.
“Mike’s excited to come to school,” said Billenstein. “They have developed structure for him. He’s learning in a real world setting. Their routine makes all the difference for him and us.
“As we look to the future, we’re taking it one day at a time,” he said. “We want him to have typical behaviors, even if he disobeys.”
The early intervention program serves children birth through age 3 who have a developmental disability in one or more area. The program provides opportunities for children to learn together in both an integrated setting and a natural environment setting.
To be eligible for the preschool program a child must be at least three years old and have deficits in two or more areas of development. The children attend preschool for 2 1/2 hours a day, four days a week. There are 11 classrooms at Shelby Hills and one each in satellite locations in Fort Loramie, Jackson Center and Houston.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4822.