Assistance League of Laguna Beach’s Early Intervention Program helps developmentally delayed babies


Story and photos by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Did you know that many, if not most, mothers are able to identify their babies by their smell?

I witnessed proof of this little-known fact at Laguna Beach of Assistance League’s charming, fun and effective Early Intervention Program, which offers advice, compassion, and companionship to parents of babies who experience developmental delays for a range of reasons. At the same time, the babies receive considerable professional therapy to stimulate their cognitive, emotional and physical growth.

Three mothers and one father were blindfolded and offered a choice of three babies to smell. (Don’t those of us who have had kids remember the thrill of holding our babies close to our noses and breathing in the aroma of their warm, downy heads?)

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Blindfolded Melanie Pinon correctly identifies her son Caleb by his scent

All four parents, including the dad, quickly and accurately identified her or his child by scent. (I have a feeling this is going to become a baby shower favorite…)

Andy and Melanie Pinon, parents of 11-month Caleb, were amazed. “This is our first time here and it’s so impressive,” Andy Pinon said. “It’s great to have fun and get so much professional help over such a wide range of topics.”

This interesting exercise took place at the “sensory station,” one of six therapy stations set up during the course of the three-hour program, which takes place every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 12 at the Assistance League of Laguna Beach’s location at 547 Catalina St.

All socio-economic levels are welcome at the free program

“At no cost to them, between 20 and 30 families are enrolled in the program at any given time,” said Catherine Hall, VP of Philanthropic Programs. “Our babies may have been diagnosed with, among others, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, or spina bifida, or any of a range of genetic disorders, or perhaps have been born prematurely. Assistance League of Laguna Beach fully funds our professional therapists, the facility, supplies and so on, through sales at our Thrift Shop as well as bequests and grants. The program has been around for 40 years and serves families with babies between six weeks and a year.”

Hall explained that these families usually go through a process of grieving until they arrive at acceptance (which sometimes doesn’t happen), but with early intervention and the support of those in a similar situation, the journey through conflicting emotions often can be eased.

“Parents begin to accept that they didn’t have the child they thought they would have, but that there is still much joy and reward in bringing up the child they do have,” Hall said.

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L- R Nikki and Rubi, parents of Liliana and Sienna respectively, love their Wednesday girls’ day out

After Circle Time, participants rotate through the stations, where therapists facilitate activities to stimulate the babies’ development. Each stop along the way offers opportunities for parents to share their stories and learn from each other’s experiences. (And, by the way, they find reasons to laugh a great deal, I noticed.)

“Our parents often come into the program frightened about what the future holds. They leave with a firm foundation and hopes for a bright future. Parents can help their children to have wonderful, fulfilling and independent lives. The children can teach all of us to live in the moment and appreciate all of our gifts,” Hall said.

At the cognition station, parents are taught about the kinds of images that attract babies’ attention and their stimulate minds.

There Grace Lozano, mother of four-month-old Desiree held up a book containing bright, simple images as well as close-ups of faces, and was delighted to see her child’s happy response to the pictures.

“This program is so wonderful,” said Lozano. “I learn so much here, and then I leave and I’m able to do similar things at home with Desiree. Plus it’s wonderful to talk to families in similar situations.”

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Happy Desiree enjoys the images in a book her mother is holding

Other stations focus on communication, gross and fine motor skills, and social and emotional growth. One of the favorites is the feeding station, where babies are treated to a variety of taste sensations.

Parents are shown how to wrap food new to the baby – for example, pureed carrots – in cheesecloth, and then hold it to the child’s mouth to enable the baby to “gum” the tasty bundle. This method enables the baby safely to experience a range of tastes, textures and temperatures – and their facial expressions are a good way to gauge their likes and dislikes.

Dustin Lorentz, seven-month-old Joseph’s dad, was having a great time feeding his son all-natural pears while learning about the cheesecloth method. “We’ve been coming here for five months,” Lorentz said. “I don’t think I have the words to sum up how amazing the program is. My son is right on track, thanks to these guys.”

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Seven-month-old Joseph Lorentz, here with his dad Dustin at the feeding station, just couldn’t stop smiling

Nikki Sunyich, Liliana’s mother, and Rubi Becerra, Sienna’s mom, have become fast friends and expect that friendship to last a lifetime.

“Wednesdays we all wear pink,” the two explained. “Our mom/daughter day starts here and then we spend the rest of the day doing girlie things. Being part of this community is such a wonderful experience.”

Hall points out that quite a few in-home programs are available, but this group-based program ensures that families don’t feel isolated.

Around 11 a.m., the parents go into a therapy session focused on their specific challenges while Assistance League volunteers care for the infants.

“We all just want our kids to be happy”

“When you think about it,” Hall says, “what is it that most parents want? They don’t care if their child becomes the president or is a soccer star. They just want them to be happy.”

Which is true. And yet the example of two alumni of the Laguna Beach Early Intervention Program, Born This Way TV stars Sean McElwee and Steven Clark, are living proof that the future can hold many surprises, no matter one’s circumstances at birth.

But if happiness and community and love are what matter most, then the families at the Early Intervention Program are already well on their way to fulfilled, wonderful, rewarding lives, thanks to the generosity of Laguna Beach’s Assistance League.

For more information about the program, visit www.allagunabeach.org or call 949-494-4974. Volunteers can help in the Thrift Shop at 526 Glenneyre, and the community is urged to shop there.