Uniting the Village: The On-Going Evolution of the West Texas Cluster
Authors: Tricia Lee Marsh, Education Specialist, Region 9 Education Service Center, Wichita Falls; Brenda Lee, Education Specialist, Region 14 Education Service Center, Abilene; Laynette Phillips, Transition Counselor, DARS – Division for Blind Services, Abilene; Laurie Adams, Transition Counselor, DARS – Division for Blind Services, Amarillo; and Ann Adkins, Education Specialist, TSBVI Outreach Program
Keywords: Family, blind, deafblind, visually impaired, camps, workshops, trainings, collaboration, teaming, Cluster, West Texas.
The year 2013 marks the 16-year anniversary of an amazing collaboration among a group of partners that serve students with visual impairments in West Texas. The Cluster, as we named ourselves, was formed out of the simple recognition that what may seem undoable alone was achievable together. We now encompass a sprawling “village” consisting of 109 counties in the Panhandle and West Texas. We discovered a common mission in our desire to better serve the diverse needs of our students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities, and their families, in our combined regions. While the individual members of the West Texas Cluster have changed since the Cluster was created in 1998, the common goal and commitment to the students and families of West Texas have never wavered. Current members include the ESC VI Consultants and O&M Specialists from Regions 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18, as well as the Children’s Caseworkers and Transition Specialists from DARS-DBS in all of those regions. The TSBVI Outreach Program and the Virginia Sowell Center at Texas Tech University are also important members of the West Texas Cluster, as are all the support staff of the involved agencies.
Uniting the Village
This article is in response to the multiple requests we have received from others wanting to “unite their villages.” At the 2012 TAER Conference, the West Texas Cluster received the Natalie Barraga Award; individual leaders within the Cluster also received awards for their achievements related to Cluster activities. We hope that the information in this article will help others unite to form collaborative “clusters”, combining their efforts and resources as a way to meet the needs of their students with visual impairments. The process that we recommend involves three steps and a number of key components.
Step One: Identify who is in your “cluster.”
The Cluster is comprised of families and service providers in a 109-county area of North and West Texas that includes the cities and areas surrounding Abilene, Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland/Odessa, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls. The service providers include the Division for Blind Services (formerly Texas Commission for the Blind), Education Service Centers in Regions 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18, Outreach Programs of Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Sowell Center at Texas Tech University.
Step Two: Meet and establish your common goals and objectives.
Each partner in our “village” brings a different and unique set of resources, experiences, and expertise to the table, but it is the combining of these differences that allows us to create a cohesive group, one that derives its strength from its diversity.
Step Three: Determine the activities that will most effectively meet your combined needs.
The West Texas Cluster currently offers a wide range of educational, confidence-building, and group skills training opportunities each year. These include annual activities such as a Parent or Family Conference (alternated each year), Project SWEEP, Camp VILLA, and Camp Experience/EXCELS . Information on these specific annual events is described below. Individual DBS offices and Education Service Centers also schedule one-day events throughout the year and invite members from other areas to participate. In the spring of 2013, the Cluster added a Sports Extravaganza event which was held in Abilene for students and siblings from all Cluster regions.
Key Components of Our Collaboration
After uniting our village and identifying our common goals, we discovered several key components that have helped us develop, and maintain, a strong and powerful group that is able to deliver world-class services to children who are blind and visually impaired and their families. The core group of individuals has changed over time, but a common commitment and recognition of individual strengths and contributions has enabled the West Texas Cluster to thrive. We feel that adherence to the following key components has been vital to our success and that of our students.
Recognize that each partner will have differing resources at different times.
Don’t allow your cluster members to get bogged down by a perception that “each partner’s contribution has got to be equal for each event.” Value each member’s contribution and realize that each member’s resources will vary from event to event and from year to year.
Make sure that what your group offers to children and families is driven by assessment, feedback, and evaluations of those you serve.
Your activities mustbe determined by these expressed needs, not what you or individual members “think” is needed. Planning for each event should be driven by the regional needs assessments and feedback received through evaluations of each event. We value and respond to input from the families and students we serve.
Leave your individual identities (agendas, territorial concerns, conflicts, turf issues, politics, etc.) at home.
Partners must come together as a group with the intent and purpose of creating something new. Each partner must have an equal, valued, and valid voice. Disagreement is part of the creative process. It must be done in an accepting atmosphere through a proactive, open process. Ultimately, all must come to consensus; discard individual differences and support fully the group decisions.
Allow the time to meet and work as a group.
The success of the West Texas Cluster is the result of all members committing 100%. As in any village, members must get to know one another, identify individual strengths, develop trust, and be committed to the combined efforts and outcomes of the group. Having regular times to meet and discuss goals and issues without distractions is critical to this type of collaboration.
Specific Events Sponsored by The Cluster
Family or Parent Conference
Every year, the West Texas Cluster offers a weekend-long conference to provide training for the parents and caregivers of children with visual impairments and multiple disabilities, as well as the professionals who work with them. The conference, usually held in the spring, rotates annually between a Parent Conference that focuses specifically on the needs and interests of parents and a Family Conference which includes all members of a student’s family. DARS-DBS offices, ESC members, the TSBVI Outreach Program, and Texas Tech University provide financial support so families can attend the conferences, as well as the speakers, presenters, and materials needed to coordinate such an event. 427 people participated in the Family Conference held in Lubbock, Texas on April 5-7, 2013. Entitled “Life: A Balancing Act”, the conference included sessions for students with visual impairments, their parents and guardians, a sibling camp – and a carnival! In 2014, a Parent Conference will be held in Lubbock on April 11-13.
VILLA = Vocational, Independent Living, Leisure/Recreation Activities. 2013 marked the 28th anniversary of the week-long camp held at Ceta Canyon near Happy, Texas. The 8 to 15 year old campers (students should have completed the second grade) participated in a variety of typical camp activities, such as swimming, fishing, hiking, crafts, and outdoor games. They also enjoyed opportunities for confidence and skill-building activities related to the Expanded Core Curriculum for Students with Visual Impairments (ECC), including group interactions and social skills, self-determination, O&M skills outdoors, rec/leisure skills, and independent living skills. Camp VILLA will be held June 2-6, 2014.
Camp Experience/EXCELS was designed to introduce the camping experience to families with younger children as well as children whose needs might limit them in other camps. This camp is open to children who are not attendees of Camp VILLA or Project SWEEP. It was designed to be a family camp where all members of the families benefit from a variety of confidence, skill-building activities. These include swimming, a ropes course, and wall climbing, as well as nature hikes, crafts, and an evening by a campfire. Specialists are on hand to provide assistance with education, therapy, networking, and skills training. Camp Experience/EXCELS will be held from August 4-7, 2014 at Camp Butman, near Merkel, Texas.
SWEEP (Summer Work Experience and Empowerment Program) is a five-week program for teenagers with visual impairments. The first week of the program focuses on job-readiness training, followed by four weeks of real work experience. Students are housed at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. The program covers daily living skills, orientation and mobility skills, job-seeking skills, on-the-job training, and social/recreation skills. Students will participate in Project SWEEP from June 23 to July 25, 2014.
New in 2013, the West Texas Cluster hosted its first annual Sports Extravaganza to encourage physical fitness among student with disabilities. The event provided opportunities for students to participate in a variety of activities that encouraged students and families to lead more active lifestyles and develop life-long leisure skills. Students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities, were able to choose from both group and individual events, including goalball, basketball skills, bocce, races, frisbee throw, beach ball soccer, and an obstacle course. Their siblings were also invited to participate. The First West Texas Sports Extravaganza was held in Abilene on April 20, 2013. Next year’s Sports Extravaganza will be September 26-27, 2014.
Comments from the Families
We feel that the powerful and effective nature of these collaborative events is best illustrated by the following quotes from families who have benefited from the services and activities of the West Texas Cluster:
“This conference had information on (a) therapy method by Lilli Nielsen that will be very useful to help improve the quality of my child’s life. Networking with other families about doctors and therapists and equipment not available in my town. In addition to this, this conference gives families coping with children’s disabilities the opportunity to walk into a room full of people and not feel outcast. We experience compassion and understanding at this event that nothing else we take part in provides, not even church or family. We are empowered to prevail by each other’s struggle and success. This is so important for new, young parents and old war horses (like me). We draw strength from each other. Can anyone not living this life understand how closed out we feel sometimes?”
“Learning new things to help my child succeed at whatever she wants to do in life.”
“Opportunity to share and learn with and from others.”
“To see the families mingle on Saturday night is a pure joy. The children and adults dance, hop, follow, lead and visit like nothing else I have ever witnessed; there is a peace and an almost abandon about it. The joy of acceptance, I guess.”
“Good networking opportunity finding other families in my area.”
“Meeting other families dealing with the same type struggles and listening to their stories.”
“We have received valuable information to help us understand the ARD process and how to help the committee understand our child’s needs. We also gained knowledge on how to get our daughter to explore her environment and items around her. We are from a rural area and do not always get to meet families with needs and disabilities like ours. The information and relationships formed at this conference have been the most valuable.”
“Learned new ways to let my child explore her world and interact with others. How to use play for teaching which has been a real problem with her multiple impairments. I also learned about new tools that are available or that we can make ourselves. Networking and talking with other families who are in similar circumstances or have dealt with similar problems already is very useful and provides needed emotional support.”
“This is one of the best conferences ever!”
While the West Texas Cluster was “born” many years ago, we continue to look for ways to effectively “raise” our village. We encourage you to unite the members of your village as well. Do not veer in your commitment – we KNOW that the rewards will far exceed those efforts. Please contact your DARS-DBS caseworker or ESC VI or O&M Consultant for information on next year’s Cluster activities!