BY INGRID SCHNADER NOVEMBER 25, 2020 1:11 PM
The nonprofit Woolley Institute for Spoken-Language Education, or WISE, located at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church (SVPC), is a place of hope for deaf children or children with hearing loss and their families.
WISE classes are taught by certified speech language pathologists and certified speech and spoken language specialists, who work to improve students’ listening, comprehension and speech skills.
They can also treat children with delayed language skills, articulation disorders, autism, apraxia and Down’s Syndrome.
The mission of WISE is to prepare students to attend mainstream schools, like those in Homewood and Mountain Brook.
“The goal of this program is for children to develop spoken language, because we believe that’s the key to independence for children, to be able to go to their neighborhood schools and to grow up in a typical hearing society with their siblings and with their families,” WISE Director Nancy Gregg, who is a speech language pathologist, told Village Living in 2019.
And the efforts of WISE have continued to grow and expand in the last year with several new programs, Gregg said recently.
WISE became an early intervention provider in October 2019 and provides therapy for children from birth to age 3 from across the state of Alabama.
In September, WISE opened a speech and language therapy program that serves children with hearing loss and children with typical hearing who have speech or language needs.
The nonprofit also launched a parent support and advocacy group this fall.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, WISE began a teletherapy program and continues to see many families virtually.
WISE recently opened a new classroom at SVPC to serve the growing number of families in its preschool program, and added a music therapy program.
Not only that, but WISE has dramatically added to its enrollment in the last year, Gregg said.
In fact, the last couple of years have been a time of big, positive changes for the organization.
Formerly known as the Alabama School for Hearing, the organization was housed in Canterbury United Methodist Church for the first nine years of its existence, from 2009-18.
Two years ago, the organization got a new board of directors, new name, new logo, new location and new staff, Gregg said.
The name now pays homage to Dr. Audie Woolley, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Children’s of Alabama who directs the hospital’s cochlear implant program.
Woolley helped start the school with fellow ear, nose and throat doctor Robert Baldwin and serves as WISE president.
One child in every 1,000 is born deaf, Woolley said. In Alabama, where there are between 40,000 and 50,000 births annually, that means 40 or 50 children are born deaf, making it one of the most common birth defects.
“It’s a real need to have a program,” Woolley said in 2019.
That need is demonstrated by the rapid growth in the number of students at WISE over the last year.
In fall 2019, WISE had five students in its early intervention program for children younger than 3 years old and 15 students in its preschool program for children ages 3-6.
This fall, there are 43 students in the early intervention program and 25 in the preschool.
“The preschool has grown … as more families have been given information about it,” Gregg said.
WISE also runs a school outreach program that is currently serving 14 children. The program helps “in any way that the child needs in transitioning into the public schools,” Gregg said.
At press time, there were already eight children enrolled in the new speech language therapy program. The program offers speech language evaluations and therapy for children from birth to 21 years old with speech and language needs, and “therapy goals are disguised in fun, motivating activities,” she said.
“As many children turned 3 and aged out of our early intervention program, parents wanted to continue their therapy program through WISE,” she said.
“We feel like this program will fill an unmet need in the community,” she said.
WISE launched its new support and advocacy group for parents, called the WISE NEST (Network for Empowering, Supporting and Training Parents) on Oct. 7.
The group will sponsor monthly meetings, social outings and other fun family events to allow parents to connect and will provide a toy and book lending library.
WISE NEST is needed because 95% of babies who are born deaf are born to parents with normal hearing, and “many families don’t know anything about deafness,” Gregg said.
In addition, many parents don’t know what resources, therapies or technologies are available to help children.
“Parents have to learn a lot very quickly,” Gregg said. “Many of them are overwhelmed and looking for a community that understands.”
With NEST, “they can help empower each other to be able to tackle the challenges that come with raising a deaf child or a child with hearing loss,” she said.
“The kids who are the most successful are the ones whose parents are the most knowledgeable and able to work with them the best,” Gregg said.
WISE opened its new classroom at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church in September. “This additional classroom, which SVPC graciously allows us to use, has opened the doors for more children to attend,” she said.
WISE also needed more space and more staff in order to comply with the CDC guidelines for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gregg said.
Music therapy offers numerous benefits to deaf and hard of hearing children, as well as children with speech delays or auditory processing problems.
For example, in learning to discriminate between different musical instruments and sounds, children also learn how to identify the differences between questions, statements and commands, Gregg said.
“The rhythm and lyrics of music helps children grasp the rhythm in language as well as expand their vocabulary,” she said.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, WISE bought additional computers for its therapists and offered its preschool and therapy program via teleconferencing. WISE continues to offer that service for its early intervention families.
“We reopened our preschool program in June with new guidelines in place,” Gregg said.
WISE doesn’t have tuition, as its costs are offset by state funds, community grants and charitable donations.
WISE also accepts a variety of health insurance policies, private pay and is a provider for Alabama Medicaid.
Gregg has worked with children with special needs for over 30 years and finds great satisfaction in working with the deaf.
“To watch them learn to communicate and be fully included in their neighborhood schools and in their community and their family, it is gratifying to see the children learn and to flourish,” Gregg said.
WISE is located at 2305 Montevallo Road. For information, call 205-728-5480 or go to wise4al.org.