Heartwood School awarded playground communication board for students

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Slocum and Lantzy with communication board.

Heartwood School in Mason was chosen to receive a large communication board to be installed on their playground. The gift was awarded after teachers and staff applied.

Heartwood is an intermediate school district school that works with students between the ages of 3 and 26.

Communication is Key is a non-profit in Livonia and Plymouth founded by Julia Dapkus. The organization provides and awards resources to schools and programs who work with complex communicators: those who are non-verbal or communicate in a unique way. These resources can include webinars, workshops, textbooks, literacy tips and, what Heartwood received, communication boards. Almost everyone who applies receives something.

Dapkus said she started this organization about two years ago. She posted on Facebook about her daughter, who is a complex communicator, using her communication board, and it went viral all over the world. People from multiple countries and  states asked what the communication board was and how to get one.

“It took off super quick and super organically,” said Dapkus.

Dapkus works with a software company to create the board, using their template. A local sign company works with them and delivers the signs for the organization. Communication is Key has already given out many boards and resources, and has a shipment of 30 more boards coming. 

“I can’t even express to you the outreach we’ve had about these,” Dapkus said.

Dapkus’ 9-year-old daughter was non-verbal until around the age of 6 and a half. She was able to communicate with different sounds and grunts, as well as her own “approximations,” which are her unique way of saying something. This led to her using a communication device.

Her daughter attended schools that were not able to give her the help she needed. Dapkus said they would go to therapy, and were practically the only ones who had a communication device. She knew this wasn’t right, so she created her organization. She now has two partners who are mothers of complex communicators.

“… And it’s been interesting how some pockets are really crushing AAC [Augmentative and Alternative Communication] and then there’s some pockets where, like, no one is doing anything. They just assume there’s nothing more to do with these kids and they have nothing to say, yet are banging their heads off the wall, or throwing, or ripping. All behavior is communicating something, whether you’re a special needs kid, a dog, a parent, a mom, or even just observing a doll, their body language will tell you a lot,” Dapkus said.

Amber Slocum is a Heartwood elementary special education teacher who applied for the board. Receiving the communication board for the playground was exciting.

“It shows that the playground is designed specifically for” students who struggle with communication. “They feel that it’s part of their world. They carry their communication devices with them every day, and to see that on a playground will help them feel included,” said Slocum.

Slocum and Stacy Lantzy, who worked on the application, picked up the board from Communication is Key. The school is hoping to have the board installed this spring.

“I am so excited to see what my students have to say! I have worked here for eight years and students have not yet been able to functionally communicate about their experiences on the playground,” said Julianna Putman, a speech language pathologist at Heartwood.

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