"Focused," and making a difference
Diane Poage has lived in Eagle River for several years and worked in special education for the Anchorage School District for more than two decades.
Yet, up until recently she knew very little about Family Outreach Center for Special Needs, the social services agency she now heads, other than the workings of its infant learning program.
Since June 1, 2014, when she became the agency’s executive director, that lack of first-hand knowledge has hit the steep end of the learning curve, and Poage couldn’t be more pleased to be climbing.
“I always knew that FOCUS existed and was familiar with infant learning, but I did not know the full scope of the programs and opportunities this agency provides for people with disabilities and the families that care for them,” Poage said. “I have sat in some many IEP (Individual Education Plan) meetings and I did know this was an option. I wish I knew now what I did not know then. I could have sent so many families to this agency.”
That’s why she made a round of visits to schools in the Chugiak-Eagle River area as teachers returned to prepare for the upcoming school year. Her goal was to update all special education teachers regarding the programs and services offered by FOCUS.
Poage wanted area teachers to be able to “at least” forward information regarding the agency to parents of children receiving district special education services and thus potentially eligible for FOCUS services.
It’s an admittedly gusty move on her part walking a tenuous path. Current guidelines governing the provision of certain FOCUS services – including the work of life skills coaches or mentors that facilitate community activity for FOCUS clients and provide the client’s full-time caregivers with some respite time – prohibit working directly with the public school system supporting any school-related functions including after-school extracurricular activities. That’s an area where life skills coaches could make a significant difference for special needs students that may need additional help participating in a sport or club, Poage said.
She hopes to change the current limitations, but knows that will take time, research and discussion with state officials that monitor FOCUS activities.
For the most part, her visits to the schools were met with positive feedback, she said. Teachers were thankful for the additional information they can use to connect their students and families with a resource designed to meet the varied special cognitive, emotional and physical needs of FOCUS clients.
One should not mistake the fact that she was not fully updated regarding the work of FOCUS as a deficit in her understanding of the issues associated with special needs. For the past two years she worked as the associate director of the Alaska State School for Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Prior to that, she was the ASD Director of Related Services handing nine school district departments related to special education with 300 total staff members under her supervision. She’s handled budgets, compliance and managed records as an administrator.
Poage began her career as a speech pathologist and audiologist. She has worked in the positions identifying and documenting cognitive deficits and challenges and encouraged parents when they just discovered the extent of their child’s disability. She has held their hands, handed the tissues and also given them the information they needed to move on. Despite the fact that she herself has no family members with special needs, the passion in her career has always been working with individuals with special challenges, she said.
She became hooked on helping the special needs community in her early career years as a speech pathologist and audiologist.
“Helping people who literally did not have a voice to find their voice in a very concrete sense and to help them be able to communicate is the coolest thing anybody can do,” she said.
She quickly realized that her passion would impact more students if she went into administration and began training and mentoring other speech pathologists and audiologists.
“By helping others to be the best professionals they could, I was and am still able to impact more kids by mentoring other professionals in the field than if I remained on the clinical side,” Poage explains.
She also is a tireless proponent of community awareness. She seeks more community involvement for FOCUS clients and on the flip side, welcomes community members and business owners to engage with the agency and its clients.
She seeks local employers that are interested in supported employment – a program by which the employer allows a pre-screened FOCUS client to gain work experience within pre-determined expectations while a FOCUS life skills coach “shadows” to give the additional assistance the employer may not be able to give in a regular employment experience.
Poage also hopes for more “fun” and “fundraising” opportunities for FOCUS. At Bear Paw last summer, members of the two local high school football teams pitted their muscles against each other in a bench press competition in which the public donated based on the performance of each player.
The event raised funds for agency programs, but more importantly, Poage said, it exposed high school students to the world of special needs and hopefully encouraged some of them to be more directly involved in the lives of others with cognitive differences.
Poage wants to hear from the parents of children with special needs and the caregivers of adults that are served by FOCUS programs. She also wants to hear from community members who might have ideas on how to further engage the agency with the rest of Chugiak-Eagle River.
“I want to make sure that if there are people out there that do not know about FOCUS, that we get them the information they need,’ Poage said. “If there is a need out there that we are not currently serving, we want to be able to know about it so we can serve those who need the services this agency offers.”