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'I just felt like I was drowning.' Pierce County parents band together to form special needs PTA

Puyallup Herald - 12/13/2018

Dec. 13--For Sarah Snyder, the journey to finding the right learning environment for her 12-year-old son has been challenging.

Her son, Christopher Cheney, has autism and has attended various schools within the Bethel School District as they searched for a classroom where he could thrive.

"It can be really isolating, having special needs kids and figuring out how to navigate everything," said Snyder, a Puyallup resident.

A new Parent Teacher Association group -- called the East Pierce County PTA -- is aiming to help change that.

The group is spearheaded by Snyder, who started it with the intention to connect parents to resources -- and each other.

The group held its first meeting last month to see if it had enough interest to become a PTA, with two-dozen in attendance. A second meeting to officially launch the group is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 5 at the Puyallup Public Library. Interested parents, teachers and others are welcome to attend.

"It needs to be bigger than one school district," said Jennifer Pellegrini, a parent of two students with special needs who is involved with the new PTA group. "... We get an ecosystem of support when we pull in from different regions."

The idea to create the PTA sparked when Snyder visited the Tacoma Special Needs PTA -- a citywide special needs group started by Tacoma Public Schools parent Sue Leusner two years ago.

There, Snyder found she wasn't alone -- parents pooled together their resources, experiences and knowledge to help each other.

"I thought it'd be amazing to start something similar out here," Snyder said.

The East Pierce County PTA will bring together parents from school districts across the county, including Bethel, Puyallup, Franklin Pierce, Sumner-Bonney Lake, Eatonville and White River.

"The more that we know and the more that we share, the more awareness there is and makes our journey just a little bit easier," Pellegrini said. "There's a lot of moving parts. You can't just Google. Where better to learn than with someone who's been in the fire with you?"

Network of support

Seated in the library of Elk Plain School of Choice in Spanaway, parents spoke about the enormous amount of information they had to learn after their children were diagnosed with various disabilities.

Jacquie Sonnenfeld, one of the parents behind the creation of the PTA group, said she was overwhelmed with the protocols and rules that came with finding programs to help her children. Sonnenfeld also said she had a hard time finding another parent experiencing the same challenges.

"You start this process, and you're not really familiar with it, and you're hearing all these different terms and all the different things that you need to do. At least me, personally, I just felt like I was drowning and didn't know what to do," she said.

Pellegrini agreed.

"There's laws and procedures, and there's evaluations, and if you're new to it, especially, it's a lot that you have to learn very quickly," she said.

Megan Nelson, assistant director of special services for the Bethel School District, supports the creation of the new PTA. She works with students with special needs across the district and said she wants to help connect parents with speakers to come to the PTA meetings.

"We're willing and want to join and come alongside in supporting that," Nelson said.

Leusner, who started the Special Needs PTA in Tacoma, said she's pleased with the progression of her group over the past two years. The group grew from 25 members to 65, and nearly 500 people have joined the group's Facebook page.

"I thought I knew a lot of about special education going into this, and every week I'm learning more and more and more," Leusner said.

Leusner supports Snyder's effort to create another special needs PTA and has worked with her to help launch it. She said equipping parents with tools to advocate for their kids helps those students in the classroom.

East Pierce County Special Needs PTA

What: Charter meeting for interested parents, teachers and community members.

When:Tuesday, Feb. 5, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Puyallup Public Library, 324 S. Meridian


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