Editor's Note: For many charitable organizations, the holiday season, like the rest of the year, is a time to connect people in need to solutions to some of life's toughest problems. It's also a great time to look out for your neighbors. That's why, in the week leading up to Christmas, we're using our "A Christmas Wish" series to showcase community members whose lives have been enriched by the work of United Way of Central Missouri partner agencies and, by extension, generous community members.
Twenty-nine years ago, Michael Brenner's son Bryan began speech therapy at the Special Learning Center.
Bryan, just 3 years old at the time, had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger's syndrome. Then Jefferson City's Special Learning Center introduced him to language and opened his world.
"He went from five words to almost age-appropriate in six months," Brenner said.
Today, Bryan has a master's degree in computer engineering and works in Washington, D.C.
Michael Brenner and his wife, Kelly Brenner, met at the Special Learning Center during the three years Bryan took classes there, before Michael's first wife died. Kelly's two daughters later took classes at the center. Now, as the couple raises their grandchildren, the center continues to provide support for their family.
The Special Learning Center at 1115 Fairground Road provides preschool services for children ages 3-6 with developmental disabilities. Fifteen therapists provide occupational speech therapy, child care and other services to about 600 children.
The Special Learning Center started in the 1940s as a volunteer-run preschool for students with developmental disabilities. At one point, funding from the United Way of Central Missouri made up 80 percent of its budget, Special Learning Center Executive Director Debbie Hamler said.
Now, United Way funding makes up just 6 percent of the center's budget.
In Bryan's case, Hamler said, sign language sometimes opens language to children who have trouble communicating.
"We have always believed in sign language because it facilitates speech in children," Hamler said. "It facilitates language development for all children, just as if you were learning a foreign language."
Hamler said families like the Brenners often stay involved with the center long after their children leave.
"You meet people along the way, and you stay connected to them," Hamler said. "It's just a special bond whenever you're helping a child."
Kelly Brenner had a sister with cerebral palsy. In the early 1980s, she said, her sister was told she would not be allowed to attend public schools, and she died before she had the opportunity to challenge that decision. That played a role in Kelly's decision to volunteer and briefly work full time at the Special Learning Center in the 1990s.
She said the center always emphasized the things children can do instead of the things they can't do.
"For the first time, they're not seeing the disability first," Kelly Brenner said. "They're seeing the child first. A lot of the time we don't experience that."
Later, Kelly's two adopted daughters also attended the center. One had emotional issues. Another had a form of high-functioning autism.
Today, Kelly and Michael Brenner are raising their granddaughters. One child, age 3, has a severe visual impairment and had motor skills behind in development. The other, age 1, has a series of digestive and respiratory problems.
"This is what brought us back to the Special Learning Center," Kelly said.
The Brenners' youngest child can have only 2-4 ounces of food every two hours. She might require a feeding tube for a few years or for life. For now, her ultimate prognosis remains unknown. This places unique demands on her caretakers.
"See, a regular day care, it'd be hard to get somebody to commit to feed her every two hours," Kelly said. "Most kids that are 15 months old are on a very limited diet, and she's on very limited food by mouth."
She also has to sleep at a 30-degree angle. So the center modified a bath chair for her to sleep in while she's there.
"A regular day care is not going to do that," Kelly said.
The center tries to give every one of its 50 students the experiences they'd have at a normal child care center while still meeting their individual needs.
In a wing built with funds raised from a golf tournament held each year by former Major League Baseball player Tom Henke, the center houses a sensory motor therapy room. Filled with a soft floor, ball pit and other therapy tools, the room serves as a therapy room and occasional play room.
The Brenners' youngest granddaughter learned to climb steps by climbing playground equipment in the therapy room.
Hamler said quick access to instructors and therapists helps children at the center immensely.
"They can be in our day care, and we have therapists in our building," Hamler said. "They're a resource to us at any point."
At ages 62 and 53, respectively, Michael and Kelly Brenner said they're committed to raising their granddaughters for the long run.
"With these two little ones, our goal is to get them raised and in college," Michael said.
"I think they're going to be able to accomplish anything," Kelly said.