Special educator celebrates 30 years of service to Heartspring
For 30 years she has helped children with special needs experience music. She has mentored teachers who strive to improve the lives of children with disabilities. She has dedicated herself to ensuring that every child is treated with dignity and respect. She has encouraged Heartspring students to utilize their creativity to express themselves as individuals. She has been an advocate for special education as a source of knowledge and support. She is Verlene Warner, Heartspring School’s music specialist and pre-vocational training instructor.
Verlene came to Heartspring in 1978 and her philosophy is based on the whole child, regardless of individual differences. She maintains that all children should be accepted first as individuals. It is her belief that all children should be granted the experiences that will assist in developing each child’s potential to the fullest. She aims to help every student experience enjoyment, creative expression, heartfelt downfalls and spontaneous responses. In other words, “the whole life of the child will sparkle with zest and originality.”
To say that Verlene has taught and worked with special education students for 30 years does not begin to convey the remarkable ability she has to connect with students. “Verlene seems to have a special gift,” said Julie Noller, Human Resources Director at Heartspring. “I once witnessed one small event that typifies Verlene’s ability to reach students in a way that others simply marvel to see. There was an extremely agitated student who refused to get up to go to his next task. Three staff were working with him without much luck. Verlene very calmly walked right up to the student, bent down to make eye contact and told him he needed to get up and act like a young gentleman. And he did!” This is just one of many examples that could be provided to illustrate Verlene’s approach to working with our students: be direct, have high expectations, look them in the eyes and be respectful.
Over the course of Verlene’s career, she has seen thousands of lives change as children pass through Heartspring’s program. Parents commend Verlene for her ability to help children accomplish what many thought was impossible. “Every once in a while, make it rarely, in the course of guiding the development of a mentally and physically handicapped child, someone stands in the road and says, ‘I’m Here!’” said Heartspring parent Herb Altman. “Verlene Warner is such, said such, and does what all parents of handicapped children search for – serves as a beacon to whom all others turn for direction.”
In addition to being a teacher, mentor and advocate in the area of special education, she is also a mother of a child with special needs. She and her husband Jimmy adopted their son Michael, a Heartspring student, after being his foster parents since age 8. Today Michael is 28 and has a successful career at an area organization that offers employment to adults with disabilities. Verlene’s two other sons, John (21) and JJ (16) rally around their brother. “They take care of each other,” she said. “Mike participates in the boys’ sports as a cheerleader. They don’t know anything different.”
Though her list of accomplishments is long, at the forefront are Verlene’s memorable holiday programs that have positively impacted parents, staff and community members…not to mention the sense of pride and accomplishment the programs have given the students. Each December, students perform in a program showcasing their hard work in choir and music classes. For those students who are non-verbal, they are able to display their dance or percussion skills. “People don’t realize the abilities of the special learner and what they can overcome,” said Verlene. “People don’t always realize the extra step these kids take to play a bell or sing ‘La’.”
The September issue of Exceptional Parent Magazine name Verlene a model of excellence in education and in March 2007, Verlene was recognized as the Kansas Association of Special Education Administrators Professional of the Year; an award that is highly deserved by a woman whose insight and commitment has been a benefit to Heartspring students, employees and parents for 30 years.
Paul Faber, Executive Vice President of Operations and Verlene’s co-worker for 20 years said “Everyday Heartspring staff witness small miracles taking place in students’ lives, but because we are so close to them, we do not always recognize the miracles. When parents visit their child, they readily recognize the marvelous changes that are taking place in their child's life. Heartspring is a place where children find their voices, their independence. That is phenomenal! Through music and pre-vocational training, Verlene is a critical part of that journey for many, many students. Her life is a profound example to me and to so many others. It is people like her that have made Heartspring the incredible place it was thirty years ago and still is today.”