My Trip to Jacob’s Ladder

This past December I had the pleasure of volunteering at one of our member schools, Jacob’s Ladder. Nestled in the woods off a two-lane road in north Roswell, GA, the school looks like any other small school; three or four buildings and adjacent outdoor play areas. An awning for the carpool line sits in the middle of a small parking lot.

However, when you enter Jacob’s Ladder you immediately sense something different about this school. A fish tank gurgles in the background, and cheerful pictures and letters from parents and students cover the walls. The words “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Love,” are displayed on various pieces of art. The school’s activity is apparent from the front office; teachers and students are busy going about their day.

Jacob’s Ladder is a neurodevelopmental school and therapy center for children with diagnoses ranging from Down syndrome and cerebral palsy to autism and genetic disorders. Amidst the unrelenting pace and expectations of modern life, the school is a safe haven for children and families facing developmental disorders.

The story of Jacob’s Ladder like many schools is tied to the story of its founder, Amy O’Dell. Amy’s son Jacob suffered brain damage during her pregnancy and childbirth. While researching options to treat her son, she became frustrated with the lack of resources for children’s brain rehabilitation. Amy already had a background in mental health, and began studying therapies based on theories of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. These concepts assert that the brain is malleable and that what is stimulated in the brain affects its growth. Therefore new pathways can be created by strategically stimulating certain areas.

Amy had tremendous success with her therapies and began treating other children in the Atlanta area. In 1998, she opened Jacob’s Ladder. The school believes every child and brain is capable of growth and change, and their mission is to believe in every child, while lovingly expressing that belief. Meeting a need in the community for these types of services, the school has experienced exponential growth since that time.

I first encountered Jacob’s Ladder while writing a review of the book Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Disney, and Autism by Ron Suskind for SAIS over the 2014 summer break. The book chronicled the Suskind family’s journey to help their son overcome the obstacles he faced due to his diagnosis with autism. I was immediately drawn to the story. As a mother of two young boys, I connected with all the parental feelings they experienced — wanting your child to succeed, trying to understand and reach your child, willing to do anything to help him or her. I also connected with the exhaustion and frustration of parents raising a child with so many unique needs.

However, despite the difficulties, the family experienced many magical moments. The child’s persistence, honesty, and vulnerability were inspiring and intriguing. His joy in simple pleasures such as making a friend, discussing shared interests, and being independent challenged society’s idea of success. While people can fall into the trap of viewing children with developmental delays as broken, limited, or incapable, those who work with and know these children realize their unique contribution, perspectives, and possibilities.

After reading the book, I began to research current therapies and schools in order to write a worthy review. I pulled statistics and numbers from the American Psychiatric Association, the National Autism Center, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I read blogs from families discussing the issues they faced or how they felt about the labels the world gave their children or the therapies available to them. And of course, I reached out to a number of SAIS member schools that serve children with developmental disorders. This is how I encountered Amy and Jacob’s Ladder.

If you haven’t met Amy, you should. Sage-like and maternal, she exudes the strength, wisdom, empathy, and purpose you would expect from someone who has walked the road she has walked and charted such an extraordinary path; as extraordinary as her now independent son Jacob, who also works at the school. Amy survived by focusing on progress, however it looked and whatever form it came in. If her son or student was moving forward, however incremental, that was success. And no one gave up.

After meeting Amy and hearing her story, I toured Jacob’s Ladder. As I said, the words “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Love” decorate many of the walls, and I soon learned they are core values of the school. In the back of the school lie gardens, animals, and a playground where students can connect with nature. The school evokes a feeling of possibility and the question of what could be. The value of reaching and helping a child seem all the more urgent — a lifeline to parents and children in need.

After writing the review I was soon busy with other duties from my job and life. But I continued to think about the school, and its important work. I also wanted to spend more time volunteering. Volunteering was not something that had been on my mind since becoming a parent. I was busy enough keeping up. But as I witnessed the many great service-learning projects in our schools, I felt compelled. I needed to step out of the checklists, deadlines, car pool lines, and classes, and into something without parameters. I wanted to pour into something or someone outside of my direct circle. I needed to serve more than anyone needed my service.

As my schedule began to slow down in November, I researched places I could volunteer. I thought of Jacob’s Ladder and wondered if it would be appropriate or if Amy would let me volunteer. I sent her an email and was delighted when she replied that I could. So we set a date.

It was a beautiful, crisp day. I arrived and the school was busy with various students and teachers working. My first assignment was participating in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) or floor time therapy room, and in particular, helping a teacher work with a four-year-old girl. Floor-time is a one-on-one therapy where the teacher follows the student encouraging desired behaviors, or in this case, being engaged, and practicing movements that stimulate growth. The girl had numerous developmental issues, difficulty focusing, delayed speech, and an under-developed lower body.

She greeted me with a flirtatious smile. She had beautiful blond hair and ice blue eyes, and immediately reminded me of the Disney character Queen Elsa from the movie Frozen. She did not speak while I was there, although her teacher said she does speak and was likely being shy. She sometimes would stare away, preoccupied or confused with what she was experiencing. She became excited and giggly when a former teacher came over and tickled her and she used all her strength in a crawling exercise to strengthen her lower body. She was a delight.

My next assignment was sorting markers in the art room. There were some students and teachers there to keep me company and I spent the bulk of my time talking to another volunteer, a 16-year-old girl. Why was she here? How did she hear about Jacob’s Ladder? How often did she volunteer? I was impressed that it wasn’t simply an assignment or something her parents were making her do, but an area she felt compelled to be involved in.

My last assignment was working with a student with cerebral palsy. We practiced having a conversation in a hallway. It was difficult for her to stand, so she braced against me. She was my height and about my weight, so I had to ground myself to hold her. I looked into her eyes as we talked and our hands gripped. Her teacher would prompt her to ask me questions. What do I do? Where do I live? Oh, really, how long have you lived there? She would eagerly ask, and then seem to doze off. Her teacher would prompt her again. She was trying, but I could see the fog she battled. Her body and her mind were against her. Still her effort was evident, as her teacher continued resolute and cheerful.

Over the days after working at Jacob’s Ladder, I reflected on the students I met. When I first interacted with them, I was nervous about how I should act, but I soon realized they were just like any other child or student — eager to learn, interact, play, and move. Like anyone, they responded to attention, acceptance, play, and kindness. During the sometimes-awkward interactions, it was okay if we didn’t know what to say or do at each moment. I couldn’t help but admire and be moved by the way the students managed both their infirmities and their humanity in facing such challenging obstacles.

As we move through life and experience its inevitable struggles and adversities, we all learn to cope. Sometimes we grow, sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we pick up bad habits, continue the same patterns, and fail. Often we learn to hide our feelings and our infirmities. We want to seem like we have it all together. We can become caught up in the culture to accomplish, to acquire, to excel, to advance, and we stop being real with each other. We also can forget the most important thing is the relationships we develop and the people we help. In my life, I can feel the way part of me has hardened; a childlike wonder and innocence or hopefulness that has diminished. However places like Jacob’s Ladder show me that progress is always possible.