Assistance League Program Honors Infant Graduates 

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By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent

Like every graduation, this one included beaming parents and grandparents, mortarboards and Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” The graduating class of six held it together without crying, each accepting, with help from a parent, a diploma and a stuffed plush gorilla named Matilda, the mascot for the program they completed. The Assistance League of Laguna Beach’s Early Intervention Program is a unique program for families with developmentally delayed infants.  

Physical therapist Cayley McDonald works on crawling skills with baby Bradley and his mom Karina at the Assistance League of Laguna Beach’s unique weekly Early Intervention Program. Photo/Barbara McMurray

In its 46th year of operation, the weekly program in Laguna Beach is the only one of its kind in the U.S. – and it is entirely free of charge for families. Babies may participate in the program until they are one year or slightly older if that is determined to be beneficial. Infants in the program have a variety of diagnoses, including genetic disorders, premature birth, and exposure in utero to harmful substances. The program has helped more than 1,300 families throughout southern California. They are drawn to the program for its lack of red tape to access the inclusive, family-centered program. 

Every Wednesday morning, a professional staff of occupational and physical therapists, developmental teachers, and behavioral specialists meet at the Assistance League’s chapter house on Catalina Street to educate parents on how to exercise, stimulate, guide, play, and care for their babies.

“Family participation is the key to success,” said program director Jo Martin. “We provide services for not just the babies but for families who have stepped into a world they did not ask for and when they may feel overwhelmed and alone. Our therapists help guide them in furthering their child’s developmental opportunities. They make specific recommendations for each child to maximize their development.”

Jennifer and Kevin Perez proudly cuddle their son Lucas, a graduate of the Assistance League of Laguna Beach’s Early Intervention Program. Photo/Barbara McMurray

At the six-week program, Wednesday breakout therapy groups teach gross, fine, and sensory motor skills, feeding and eating, and social and emotional skills to a few babies and parents at a time. After therapy, Assistance League volunteers hold and rock the babies while parents attend marriage and family counseling sessions.

The service club provides the facility and funds this unrivaled program, whose annual budget is $100,000, through proceeds from its well-stocked Turnabout Thrift Shop at 526 Glenneyre Street, fundraising events, grants, and private donations. A fundraising dinner on March 21 at Mozambique will include no event program, auction, or speakers. Those wishing to support the Early Intervention Program may make reservations for that date. If participants specify they are attending in support of the nonprofit, a portion of their dinner will go to the Assistance League. 

“In January 2019, my husband and I learned that our baby boy had Down syndrome and would require open-heart surgery in his first months of life,” a mother whose baby, Jacob, graduated from the program, wrote in a letter to the Assistance League.

“We didn’t know any other families who had experienced anything like this. First, a friend, then a pediatrician, then a heart specialist – all told us to contact EIP. Thank goodness we did. Every week leading up to Jake’s surgery, I would bundle him up and take him to Laguna to spend the morning with other moms, dads, and babies. For two hours, therapists would work with us worried parents on our concerns and questions. As a group of kind volunteers cuddled the babies downstairs, I confessed to a parent group how scared I was. A father in a baseball cap got me laughing about his daughter with Down syndrome, who had undergone the same surgery and is now the life of every party. After the meeting, the mom beside me told me about her son’s four surgeries and how it gets easier. She and I are friends to this day.

“Fast-forward to the present: Jacob is a wiggly, giggly one-year-old. You can barely see the scars from his surgery. I got the opportunity to help another EIP mom through her baby daughter’s heart surgery, texting with her frequently in the weeks leading up to it about the surgeon, the facilities, and other mundane but important matters. 

“EIP helps the babies, it’s true. But its greatest gift is to the parents: the gift of courage, comfort, and community. I will forever be grateful to the Assistance League and the ICEC therapists who cared for Jacob and us in his first year.”

Rachel, a first-time mom who hopes to adopt the four-month-old she and her husband have been fostering, said, “This program is a godsend. They have been our village.”

Program director Martin said the relationships cemented in the EIP program are lifelong ones. “A group of 18-year-olds is graduating high school this year who met in our program,” she said. “Same with a bunch of middle-schoolers who first met here. And staff members find it enormously satisfying, so they stay on.”

Once babies have completed the EIP program in Laguna Beach, volunteers at the Assistance League of Laguna Beach help coordinate the transition to therapeutic programs at Irvine’s Intervention Center for Early Childhood. More information about this program and volunteer opportunities is available by visiting allagunabeach.org.

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