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Special needs summit

JBLM brings teachers, child care experts together

Ashley Penney, research scientist with the University of Washington, provided updated guidance and research on inclusion for special needs children to child care professionals at a Special Needs Summit at JBLM Oct. 18. Photo Credit: Pamela Sleezer

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD - Child care experts and staff from Army installations across the globe came together at Joint Base Lewis-McChord recently to share experiences and gain information that will help them provide better care for children with special needs and their families.

The meeting was a two-day conference referred to as a Special Needs Summit held Oct. 18 and Oct. 19 at the American Lake Conference Center, put together by officials with Child and Youth Services through the Directorate of Morale, Welfare and Recreation organization at JBLM. While other conferences have been held recently by the Department of Defense, the JBLM event is the first of its kind in that it put CYS at the forefront of the discussions.

Suzanne King, CYS Division chief at IMCOM's G-9 Division Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, said hearing from the people in the classrooms caring every day for special needs children offers the most valuable feedback to the Army.

"It helps us to gain a greater understanding of policies and guidance, learn the resources and develop solutions," King said during her remarks the first morning of the conference.

The conference was attended by child care professionals from near and far. Teachers and medical experts at JBLM were joined by special needs program managers from installations in Texas, North Carolina, Hawaii and Germany, as well as experts from installation directorates, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Installation Management Command.

Candace Iavarone, CYS coordinator at JBLM, said she was excited to see so many new and familiar faces at the conference.

"This is incredible," Iavarone said. "We worked with protocol to send out invitations Armywide, and to see so many people accept that invitation and make the trip to be here to support children, families and the staff in the programs is amazing."

Iavarone said the first Special Needs Summit at JBLM was held in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed their attempts to host another until this year.

"We are really excited to be getting this going again and moving forward with the work we started in 2019," Iavarone said.

JBLM ranks as one of the highest in population of Exceptional Family Member Program families across all Army installations, and the conference allowed JBLM providers to brainstorm with other professionals how to encourage inclusion of children and youth with special needs as well as support their teachers who care for them.

Colonel Brandon Sokora, JBLM deputy commander, attended the first morning of the conference and he emphasized the value of the conversations that were happening at the conference.

"Providing adequate child care to our service members is foundational," Sokora said, adding that it directly impacts military readiness and retainment across all installations. "What y'all do every day makes a significant impact on what makes our service members willing to stay."

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