Ms. Ventura Wins National Award
One of our beloved social workers, Lauren Ventura, has won the National Association of Private Special Education Centers Service Provider of the Year Award. This national recognition is a prestigious accomplishment and we could not be more proud of Ms. Ventura. Ms. Ventura will receive her award at NAPSEC's national conference in New Orleans this January. Read on to learn more about Ms. Ventura.
In just five years as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) at Benway School, Lauren has made countless contributions. To name a few, Lauren acted as a liaison between Benway and the Wayne Alliance, attended and spoke to families at the Alliance of Private Special Education Schools, and connected Benway with Global Advisors on Smoke Free Policy as our special needs student population are at higher risk for suffering from addiction to smoking. In her time on the Character Education Committee Lauren developed and implemented a character trait ticket program that utilized positive reinforcement for student recognition at the school wide level.
The Benway students are in for quite a surprise as this year Lauren received a $2,000 donation from State Street Global Services to purchase gifts that will be distributed to our students during our holiday feast. The funds will be divided evenly between the students. Employee volunteers will wrap approximately 70 gifts that Lauren herself will shop for in the coming weeks. Her vision is for the students to open their gifts together as a family. She has even reached out to the students' caregivers to secretly find out what our students are wishing for this holiday season.
Additionally, she has gone through the arduous two year long process of getting her dog, Lucy, certified as a Therapy Dog for the purpose of emotional learning, behavioral modifications, and intrinsic incentives. Lauren took the time to review and implement the therapy dog curriculum with great fidelity. As Benway is a school that specializes in the therapeutic approach for students with emotional, behavioral, and learning disabilities progressive comprehensive programs like this one are essential to building confidence and a culture of caring. Some of the key components to the program are the utilization of her therapy dog in individual and group sessions, shared reading experiences, and Therapy Dog Club for Social Emotional Learning.
Lauren shows significant excitement for progressive, creative, and effective modalities. After researching evidence-based practices in incorporating therapy dogs into school settings for students with special needs Lauren was determined to make her new puppy, Lucy the newest employee of the Benway School. What motivated her was that, “animals may enhance empathy and promote prosocial behaviors, in addition to increasing opportunities for connections with others (Sloan-Oberdier, 2018). Many of Lauren’s students self isolate or have difficulty initiating conversations. Utilizing the therapy dog provides organic experiences for her students to interact positively with others. Lucy also helps with addressing various issues such as feelings, self-control, personal responsibility, grief, and attachment. Another example of how Lauren displays innovation using this approach is in working with students with ADHD. In order to develop attention and focus skills during a team visit with Lucy, Lauren has to coach the student to communicate with the dog during walks or playing games. She then needs to provide the student with tools to maintain their focus. In return the student processes cues from their counselor, but communicates with the dog using words and signals.
Lucy is also used for our literacy programs where Lauren collaborates with our Reading Specialist after she discovered that through the effects of human-animal interaction on children’s motivation, engagement, and self-regulation, (Gee et al., 2017), academic outcomes may also improve as stress is reduced allowing the prefrontal cortex to function more efficiently.
Lauren had to take a great deal of steps to begin and maintain this innovative program which included: putting Lucy through two separate training schools, building her knowledge base of Animal Assisted Interventions, develop a comprehensive rationale to gain administration's approval and support, understand school policy and limitations, develop a mission and goals, find potential teams of support and opportunities with other coworkers, support her case in an intervention planning meeting, continually educate students on animal behavior, consider the welfare of the dog and plan accordingly, and lastly gather data on the intervention strategies used to better plan for future needs.
When considering Lauren to be nominated as an award winning member of the Benway community the first images that come to mind are her tenacious efforts to connect the students to countless volunteer experiences and community resources. Lauren goes above and beyond to not only provide in times of need, but to encourage students to give back, experience community work, and in return increase the self esteem and self worth of her students. During one of her trips to CUMAC, a food bank in Paterson, New Jersey Lauren connected with one of the directors to see what else the school could do to help the community. She learned that the food bank was in desperate need of peanut butter and jelly. Lauren organized the students in creating and distributing flyers and collection boxes.The food drive brought in 407 pounds of peanut butter and jelly! Students loaded up the buses and headed to Paterson to donate the oversized load themselves. They were rewarded with a behind the scenes tour of the facility where they were able to visualize their impact. Lauren provided another opportunity to give back this time with staff members. Over 70 special needs children in Northern New Jersey benefited as members of the Benway community donated gifts during the holiday season to children in residential communities.
Additionally, Lauren provided a shared experience with the Wayne Alliance and the Benway School students. She collaborated with the organization to make a stigma free town and in doing so was able to bring the resources developed to Benway and the Wayne Public Schools. This proved to be especially important for the special needs community as mental illness is the most common disability. In addition, through her work with the Alliance Lauren was largely responsible for the development of the Passaic County’s Resource net where she contributed resources for Mobile Response, COVID, and peer youth mentoring. Lauren unknowingly had fulfilled the Benway school’s executive director’s wish for the school to be involved with the Alliance for which he is incredibly proud.